“Be With You” by Mary J. Blige (1994)/”Be Without You” by Mary J. Blige (2005)

Two songs, performed a decade apart, charting MJB’s evolution from troubled young woman to triumphant survivor.

“Be With You” appears on 1994’s My Life, which is widely considered to be the best MJB album (I agree). Mary’s singing about wanting to be with someone but wondering if the dude even wants her around. That pain is communicated by Mary in a fashion that makes “Be With You” almost uncomfortable to listen to.

A lot of folks threw shade at Mary for not being the greatest technical singer early in her career, but songs that hit you in the heart are about interpretation, not facility. Mary’s voice veers off-key and threatens to crack at various moments during “Be With You”, but the pain in her voice communicates more than the vocals of every song off of Whitney Houston (to use an example)’s first three albums put together (no shade to Whitney, just proving a point here.) The young star (who was in the midst of a tumultuous relationship with Jodeci’s K-ci Hailey) is singing like she’s challenging the song’s breakbeat to a fight.

A decade (11 years if we’re being sticklers) and lots of heartbreak later, Mary’s still fighting for love. The difference is that Mary has learned enough in the ensuing decade to deliver advice confidently and take that advice herself.

On “Be With You”, Mary sounds desperate, like she’s clawing onto a ledge for her life. On “Be Without You”, Mary sounds confident in her relationship, having acquired the knowledge that the best relationships are the ones worth battling for. Or to use a different metaphor, “Be With You” is Mary getting a piece of flesh torn off. “Be Without You” is Mary proudly showing off the scar and using it as a cautionary tale to others.

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