Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 69 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re breaking down Mary J. Blige’s classic “Real Love.”
It’s 1988 or so, at the Galleria Mall in Westchester, in White Plains, New York, and they got one of those new karaoke machine–recording booth situations, you can make a tape of yourself singing whatever you want—I associate these singing booths with amusement parks, but malls in New York were cooler, I guess—and we got Mary Jane Blige, around 17 years old, tearing up Anita Baker’s “Caught in the Rapture.”
This is the actual Anita Baker original, from 1986. I’m very sorry. I would love to play you the legit teenage Mary J. Blige Galleria Mall version of “Caught Up in the Rapture,” but I don’t believe it’s out in the world. Can I confess to you that, in general, I don’t go in much for demos, outtakes, alternate takes, or even most of the bonus tracks record companies slap onto reissues, remasters, and whatnot; all the random effluvia they toss in to pad it out and make it a double CD, so they can charge you $25 for a record you already own? I guess those days are mostly over, but I’m still mad and I still don’t care.
But I would make an exception for the Galleria Mall version of “Caught Up in the Rapture.” I would pay $25 for that alone, in part because that tape gets teenaged Mary J. Blige a record deal. Mary J. Blige was born in the Bronx; she grew up singing in church in Savannah, Georgia, before her family moved to Yonkers, New York to the Schlobohm housing projects in Yonkers: eight, seven-story buildings. A way less cheerful New York Times article from 1987 with the headline “Yonkers Anguish: Black and White in 2 Worlds” talks about the racial segregation and slow degradation of Scholobohm: the crime, the trash, the graffiti, the broken glass on the playgrounds. Somebody in the Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority says, ‘’If we ever replicated another Schlobohm, I think it would be an obscenity.” That’s what Mary J. Blige was caught up in, in 1988.
So this tape Mary made at the mall, her mother’s boyfriend at the time hears it, loves it, and passes it along to his friend Jeff Reed, who works with him at the General Motors plant in Tarrytown. And even though Jeff is working at the GM plant in Tarrytown, he is, himself, an artist, a musician, a singer signed to the fabled Uptown Records, based in Manhattan, run by music-business god Andre Harrell––who sits at the fabled vanguard of late-’80s hip-hop and R&B. Jeff runs this mall tape straight to Andre Harrell.
Uptown Records in this era has Heavy D and the Boyz, and Father MC, and Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing group Guy. They’re about to sign Jodeci. But they don’t yet have somebody precisely hard and soft enough to push the label, and really R&B as a whole, forward. Jeff Reed wasn’t quite that somebody, but he found that somebody.
That’s from a 2021 documentary called Mary J. Blige’s My Life, directed by Vanessa Roth and premiering on Amazon Prime. This is not the most revelatory, pop-star documentary you’re ever gonna see in your life. It can be vague, it can be withholding, it can radiate press-release energy. The great pop critic and blogger Rich Juzwiak wrote a great piece about it for Jezebel and he says, “The film is the equivalent of Blige leaving herself a five-star Yelp review.” Rich is the best. Rich is a huge fan of Mary’s; he also says that Mary definitely deserves a five-star Yelp review.
There’s a deeply unpleasant tension here between what she won’t say and the profound ugliness of what she will say. If you read anything about Mary J. Blige, if you watch her VH1 Behind the Music, if you listen to her albums, if you see her live, if you spend any time with her in any capacity––she will tell you bluntly and, to a careful degree, explicitly about the darkest aspects of her childhood. When she was 5 years old, she was molested by a family friend. As a teenager, as a coping mechanism, she turned to drugs and alcohol and dropped out of high school. In that documentary she calls the Schlobohm housing projects a “prison within a prison within a prison.” She says she remembers hearing women being beaten. She says that she never smiled as a teenager. In many of her early music videos, album covers, et cetera, she’s got a hat pulled down low over her eyes, in part to hide a prominent scar below her left eye. She says she will never talk about how she got that scar.
When fellow singers describe the pain in Mary J. Blige’s voice, it’s the pain of a generation, that’s absolutely true; but it’s also the pain of one struggling teenage girl. When Puff Daddy—at the time a young, ambitious Uptown Records executive—describes her “raspy gutter ghetto tone” the pain in her voice because there was so much pain in the streets, yes, absolutely, that’s the pain of a generation. Some of that pain she shares with the world; some of that pain will always be hers and hers alone. She signs to Uptown Records; her first album, What’s the 411?, comes out in July 1992 when she’s 21 years old. Am I drawn to the song “Real Love” now—her first truly big single, her first Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, her introduction to much of the world—am I fixated on “Real Love” now because it’s so joyful I can’t hear any of that pain, or because somehow you totally can still hear it?
I swear I’m not doing the thing where I insist that a buoyant and happy song is secretly a crushingly sad song. That’s not it at all. “Real Love” is pure sunlight to me. I love how nimble her voice is, the skipping-stone deftness of her syllables, the way the bass kicks in right when her voice does. Mary’s got two decades of fantastic work ahead of her, but I don’t know if there’s a better hook in her catalog than the piano and the drums here. The piano and the drums demonstrating what real love would sound like and feel like. I’m just saying that part of what makes this song so buoyant and carefree is how much weight she secretly packs into the words We made it through the storm.
Part of what makes “Real Love” so impressive is that it transcends the 50,000 other songs called “Real Love.” I live in Columbus, Ohio, near Ohio State, which has just trademarked the word the, as in “the Ohio State University.” It’s the dumbest shit imaginable, and the audacity of trademarking the word the is commensurate with putting out a song called “Real Love” and having it be the definitive song called “Real Love.” But Mary J. Blige did it, and beat out stiff competition to do it.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.