In July of 1992, promising 21-year old singer Mary J. Blige released her game-changing debut album, What's The 411 (a call back to her early days as a 4-1-1 telephone operator) and introduced to the world a fusion of R&B hooks and hip-hop beats and a sly producer named Sean Combs aka Puff Daddy. Combs was set on taking Teddy Riley's ‘new jack swing' and adopting it for the new generation by layering smooth R&B melodies and harmonies over classic hip-hop beats. The result was the new hybrid genre – hip-hop soul. What's The 411 went platinum and spawned six genre-defining singles, including signatures "You Remind Me" and "Real Love."
While many praised Combs as the Svengali of Blige's success, carefully crafting her fly-girl next-door image and stacking the album with strategic samples and slick production, it was really the singer's vocal prowess and the way she spoke to people in her songs that gained listeners' loyalty. R&B loves its balladry, but Blige brought a sense of realism and gravitas to the heart of it, cutting through the saccharine promises of the crooner landscape to become the patron saint of the broken hearted for years to come.
Blige brought a sense of emotional maturity and self-awareness far beyond her 21 years on What's The 411 that resonated with female and male audiences alike and still does 25 years later. It certainly helped that her debut encapsulated New York-driven hip-hop culture at that time and featured over 10 samples, multiple covers, features and influences that ranged from Chaka Khan, Ohio Players, Grand Puba, Busta Rhymes, Grover Washington Jr, Biz Markie, Schoolly D and countless others.