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When we call Mary J. Blige the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul it means so much more than her being a singer who flows over classic Awesome Two beats. When “Real Love” hit the streets in the summer of ’92, R&B’s future was uncertain. Sophisticates Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were carrying on in a time-honored tradition, Teddy Riley had created a niche with his swing beats, but hip-hop, already coming into its third generation, was staging a straight takeover.

Sales were soaring, record labels were dedicating whole divisions to the evolving sound, and radio stations that had once boasted “hip-hop free zones” were flipping their formats. Rap was charting. Hardcore songs that in the past could’ve only hoped for jeep rotation were receiving regular spins in major radio markets. There were girls in the game, but the testosterone was so dominant that b-girls still favored the safety of baggy jeans over corsets and camisoles.

Enter Mary J. Blige. Here was a singer who didn’t dress her personal struggles in a gown and give them vague euphemisms. Mary spelled out her pain, the poverty that had shaped her childhood and the bankrupt way young men and women were attempting love in the hip-hop generation. Her early collabos flowed like duets—not guest spots.

A cruise through her catalog and collaborations is a short cut to each era’s most important MCs. She learned to rap with Grand Puba, pushed the Lox out of Yonkers, she gave the Notorious B.I.G. his first ever official gig, blessing him with a few bars on her remix to “Real Love” when he was still a demo tape sensation, living in the back of his mom’s Bed-Stuy apartment.

"She has a musical library in her head," says Hank Shocklee, the legendary Public Enemy producer who Executive Produced her best-selling Share My World. "She knows all the classic singers and MCs and not just their hits—she knows the B-sides.” It’s that musical knowledge that gives her ears an edge. Mary's love of music has pointed her in the direction of new talent and kept her own sound in front of her own peers, helping to guide hip-hop itself.

But despite her singular occupation of a male-dominated art form, Mary has always concerned herself with love. She was unafraid to go to those painful places, where mornings feel like they’re covered in a blanket of wet sand, where rejection and lies rip strong women to pieces. She perched that pain on stiletto python boots and paraded it for the whole world to see.

There is no shame in vulnerability, she preached to a generation that liked to think itself bulletproof. An open heart was her gift to her fans and we fell deeply in love with this loyal-to-love singer, unable to hide her scars. Even when she wasn’t giving herself the love she deserved, she was royal and true. Thankfully her story didn’t end there, stuck in self-sacrifice.

When Mary began to choose herself, she literally dug her way up, fighting for self-respect, self-love, manifesting the kind of love that soars. She began to sing about spiritual bonding and shared dreams. And they weren’t fantasies, she promised. This new kind of healthy love was as real as the painful love she’d known as a younger woman. Album by album she tracked a path, taking her fans on a journey towards fulfillment. As Hov put it, “When Mary sings it heals your soul…”

As we await the release of her 10th album My Life II… The Journey Continues—on which she reportedly spits a few bars herself, recording under the pseudonym Brook Lynn—let’s take a look back at Mary J. Blige’s 10 greatest rap collabos.

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Written by dream hampton (@dreamhampton)

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