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Mary J. Blige
Mary J has become a music icon over the past decade because of her persistence, talents, kindness and deep expressions from her soul. When her debut album, What's the 411?, hit the street in 1992, critics and fans alike were floored by its powerful combination of modern R&B with an edgy rap sound that glanced off of the pain and grit of Mary J. Blige's Yonkers, NY childhood. Called alternately the new Chaka Khan or new Aretha Franklin, Blige had little in common stylistically with either of those artists, but like them helped adorn soul music with new textures and flavors that inspired a whole generation of musicians. With her blonde hair, self-preserving slouch and combat boots, Blige was street-tough and beautiful all at once, and the record company execs who profited off of her early releases did little to dispel the bad-girl image that she earned as she stumbled through the dizzying first days of her career. As she exorcised her personal demons and softened her style to include sleek designer clothes, she remained a hero to thousands of girls growing up in the same kinds of rough places she came from. Blige reinvented her career again and again by shedding the bad habits and bad influences that kept her down; by the time her fourth album, Mary, was released in 1999, she had matured into an expressive singer able to put the full power of her voice behind her music, while still reflecting a strong urban style. With her fifth album, No More Drama, it wasn't just Blige's style that shone through the structures set up for her by songwriters and producers, it was her own vision -- spiritual, emotional, personal, and full of wisdom, and reflected an artist who was comfortable with who she was and how far she had come.
Born in the Bronx on January 11, 1971, Blige spent the first few years of her life in Savannah, GA, before moving with her mother and older sister to the Schlobam housing projects in Yonkers, NY. Her rough life there produced more than a few scars, physical and otherwise, and Blige dropped out of high school her junior year, instead spending time doing her friends' hair in her mother's apartment and hanging out. When she was at a local mall in White Plains, NY, she recorded herself singing Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture," into a karaoke machine. The resulting tape was passed by Blige's stepfather to Uptown Records' CEO Andre Harrell. Harrell was impressed with Blige's voice and signed her to sing backup for local acts like Father MC. In 1991, however, Sean "Puffy" Combs took Blige under his wing and began working with her on What's the 411?, her debut album. Combs had a heavy hand in What's the 411?, along with producers Dave Hall, Mark Morales, and Mark Rooney, and the stylish touches that they added to Blige's unique vocal style created a stunning album that bridged the gap between R&B and rap in a way that no female singer had before. Uptown tried to capitalize on the success of hat's the 411? by issuing a remixed version of it a year later, but it was only a modest success creatively and commercially.
Her 1995 follow-up, My Life, again featured Combs' handiwork, and if it stepped back stylistically from its urban roots by featuring less of a rap sound, it made up for it with its subject matter. My Life was full of ghetto pathos and Blige's own personal pain shone through like a beacon. Her rocky relationship with fellow Uptown artist K-Ci Hailey likely contributed to the raw emotions on the album. The period following the recording of My Life was also a difficult time professionally for Blige as she severed her ties with Combs and Uptown, hired Suge Knight as a financial advisor and signed with MCA.
1997's Share My World marked the beginning of Blige's creative partnerships with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The album was another hit for Blige and debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Critics soured somewhat on its more conventional soul sound, but Blige's fans seemed undaunted. By the time her next studio album, Mary, came out in 1999, the fullness and elegance of her new sound seemed more developed, as Blige exuded a classic soul style aided by material from Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Stevie Wonder, and Lauryn Hill. Mary made it obvious that the ghetto fabulous style and more confrontational aspects of her music were gone, while the emotive power still remained.
That power also helped carry the more modern-sounding 2001 release, No More Drama, a deeply personal album that remained a collective effort musically yet reflected more of Blige's songwriting than any of her previous efforts. The Mary J. Blige on No More Drama seemed miles away from the flashy kid on What's the 411?, yet it was still possible to see the path through her music that produced an older, wiser, but still expressive artist. 2003's Love and Life reunited her with P. Diddy, who produced the majority of the album.
Yes, More Drama: Mary J. Blige Talks Acting Career (But Not New LP)
Singer perhaps found inspiration in upcoming duet with Jamie Foxx.
With a brace of new songs and a burgeoning acting career, Mary J. Blige has a busy year lined up, but you'd never know it from speaking to her.
"I'm recording my album right now in L.A.," Mary said, "I'm happy."
Apparently she meant happy to politely decline to offer any further details about it. But MTV News has learned that Mary's already recorded 27 songs for the album, which is expected out this August, with such producers as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre, Rodney Jerkins, Swizz Beatz, Raphael Saadiq, Robin Thicke, and Jam & Lewis. And that's just a partial list.
Even when she's not working on her own material, Mary's been spending a lot of her free time in the recording booth, making a remix of Cassidy's "I'm a Hustla" and duetting with Will Smith and Jamie Foxx for their upcoming albums. Her track with Smith is called "Why," and she and Foxx remade the '80s song "Love Changes" by Kashif.
That time with Jamie Foxx must have really been inspiring. Though she's been considering some acting roles for a while, now that Foxx nabbed the Academy Award, Mary J.'s got visions of shiny gold men dancing in her head too.
"I'm looking at scripts right now," she said. "One main script that I'm a little nervous about. I just gotta get more passionate about this acting thing. I love music, so I'm passionate about that. If I can get as passionate about acting as I am about music, then maybe I'll win an Oscar."
Mary J. Blige Changes Her Mind About Drama
'No More Drama' singer signs up for play about death row.
The woman who passionately sang about "No More Drama" has just signed on for one.
Mary J. Blige will make her theater debut in an off-Broadway production of "The Exonerated" later this month. Her run at New York's 45 Bleecker Theater will
last for less than a week, from February 24 to 29.
"The Exonerated" is about the experiences of people who were on death row, subsequently found innocent, then freed by the state. Producers crafted the play out of true stories collected from 40 people around the country.
"The Exonerated" features a rotating cast of guest storytellers, much like the popular production "The Vagina Monologues." Past cast members have included Alanis Morissette, Mia Farrow and Jeff Goldblum.
Mary J. Blige: Love Of My Life
The more things change for Mary J. Blige, the more they stay the same. Since her last LP, No More Drama, dropped, she's been giving out the vapors to a whole new fanbase around the globe. People like Bette Midler, Sting, Annie Lennox and Stella McCartney have been spotted at MJB's concerts, and even Michael Jackson's wedding-aisle-walking homie, Liza Minnelli, paid homage to the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul with a rendition of "Family Affair" at some of her own concerts.
But rather than run with the whole pop-crossover scenario, Mary is returning to her roots on her latest LP, Love & Life, due August 26. She's working with P. Diddy, who produced her first two classic LPs, What's the 411? and My Life.
MTV News' John Norris caught up with Mary recently to talk about why some of her early work makes her sick, why P. Diddy cracks her up and how her soon-to-be husband helped change her life around.
John Norris: As successful as No More Drama was at broadening your fanbase, in May you told MTV News that you wanted to touch the audience that supported your first two LPs. Do you see Love & Life as a return to the streets?
Mary J. Blige: Honest to God, I believe that I never left. I mean, Mary J. Blige has evolved as a person and I am from the streets, but I am Mary. The streets respect me because I kept it real with me. You gotta be real with yourself, and the streets recognize game. The streets knew for years that Mary has not been about game — she's trying to get herself and her life together. She's not trying to please [people] with ignorance, she's trying to pull [them] out [of despair].
Norris: Because of this musical reunion with Puffy, when Love & Life comes out, a lot of people are going to be reminiscing about the days of What's the 411? and My Life. As much as people remember those records so fondly, when you think about that period, they're not the greatest memories of yourself personally.
Blige: Definitely not. I mean, it makes my stomach hurt when I hear the My Life album. Although it's one of my favorite albums, it's just so dark. I mean, there's a real bad suicide spirit on there.
Norris: Conscious suicide or subconscious?
Blige: It was straight out, "Bam! I'm ready to go." It was out there like, "I can't take this anymore. I don't know what to do." I subliminally ... started taking a lot of drugs and staying up for days and days hoping, I guess subliminally, that something bad will happen so that someone will come and pay attention to me, and come and say, "Are you OK? Why are you doing this?"
Norris: Was anyone there for you?
Blige: The only person at that time that would say something like that is Puff. He would know and I don't know how he knew. And he'll be walking in a circle around me and I'd just be like, "Ahhhhh! Could you get off my back? This is what I want to be right now." He used to just be looking at my friends like, "You can't hang with them no more." He cared.
Norris: Regardless of your personal problems, professionally you and Puffy were able to create two LPs that set trends and laid the blueprint for some of the music that's flooding the airwaves today. What is it like working together on Love & Life as opposed to 411 and My Life?
Blige: You know, it was exactly the same. I don't really like to say things unless I know they're true, and I know Puff is my partner in this music business. It's like What's the 411? again except during the process of it, there are different things we learned. Both of us are hyper and both of us learned how to tone it down. Both of us learned about the whole psychology thing.
Norris: Diddy did most of the production on the album, but you were able to get a few outsiders in, most notably Dr. Dre, who produced the record you call your biggest ever, "Family Affair." Can you contrast working with Puff versus Dre?
Blige: I really know Puff, I don't really know Dre. I think Dre is one of the nicest producers I've ever worked with. He has so much class and he's very ego-less and that makes it easy to work with Dre. He's just got a lot of good energy. Puff, you just gotta love him for being him 'cause he makes me laugh. If you don't know him, he's gonna have you all uptight.
Norris: As important as Dre and Diddy have been to your career, your fiancé, Kendu, has been indispensable in helping you get your personal life in order. What is he like?
Blige: Well, I mean, it was the physical relationship with this human being that gave me a reason to live. I mean, this person saw me and he understood that I didn't understand how important I was. He said things like, "Do you know how important you are? Why are you drinking so much?" [He] was an angel sent to spot different things that were wrong and as much as I didn't want to listen to him, I gave him a shot. It turns out that everything that was being pointed out were things that I already knew were wrong but was in denial about. The different thing [now] is [that] I love me ... it's gonna take a lifetime to get where I need to go, [but] I'll always be able to love Mary.
Mary J. Blige: Drama Queen
Imagine a Jackie Chan movie without flying fists and feet. Or a P. Diddy album without a yacht-load of special guests. Now imagine a Mary J. Blige album without the drama. Please believe it. On her fifth studio album, the queen of hip-hop soul has left her storied emotional struggles behind and come up with a title that says it all: No More Drama.
The album, an ode to funky, spiritual love and devotion, features mostly uptempo, danceable tracks produced by the likes of Rockwilder, the Neptunes, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Dr. Dre, who produced the first single, "Family Affair." Mary J. told Curtis Waller that she's ready to get crunk, hit the clubs and tell the world about finding her true love.
MTV: Around the time of the release of the Mary album, you said this new album was going to be more hip-hop based. Is that still true?
Mary J. Blige: It is. It's a combination of everything I've done. It's different from [my 1992 debut] What's the 411?, but music-wise you can dance to it. Everybody I missed the last time and the [time before that] will get this one.
MTV: Talk about some of the producers you worked with on this project.
Blige: I worked with Dr. Dre on the first single, ["Family Affair,"] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, The Neptunes and a lot of new producers that people don't know anything about. And Rockwilder and Missy Elliott, of course.
MTV: What's "Family Affair" about? What's the story behind it?
Blige: I'm just celebrating my joy right now, my life. I'm just celebrating the fact that I'm no longer what I was mentally and spiritually. I'm somebody else, and it's just about me shaking off everything and going off and enjoying myself. [I'm saying], "Leave all your problems outside, we're going to have a good time tonight. This is Mary's joint. We are gonna have a good time and get crunk and get drunk." The lyrics say that, but let me get this right, it's about having a good time with your friends and drinking and doing whatever you do to the limits you do it. It's time for Mary to have a good time too, but you know, the whole album doesn't consist of that [same vibe].
MTV: "Dance for Me" is a really upbeat track, and the groove on that is just so fresh. What are we talking about there?
Blige: When you say fresh, you mean like a breath of fresh air in music?
Blige: That's my aim with everything that I did this time, not to use a bunch of stuff that everybody uses. To use a bunch of things which would be refreshing [to the ear], but at the same time [make you say], "Woo, new stuff, new sample." That's another celebration record, another let's-pick-it-up-again, leave-all-your-troubles-and-cares-behind record. Don't drink too much, because we have all night. Do it in moderation — don't kill yourself. When you go to a club, you want everyone to dance. I'm just asking everybody to dance for me, enjoy this moment. We have problems, everybody's got problems, [but] just enjoy.
MTV: The title track is another song with a really strong message.
Blige: I did that song a year and a half ago. My album is called No More Drama, and that song is just saying, "Enough already, I'm shaking it all off and I'm not going to let anyone control me emotionally anymore." It's sort of a deliverance you get from that record, like you just don't wanna do it no more. Anybody that is trying to hurt you, if you are trying to hurt yourself, or you don't know you're hurting yourself, it should wake you up.
MTV: That song is one of the ones Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis worked on. Do you feel like they understand where you're coming from?
Blige: Working with Jimmy and Terry is always kind of personal, because they always seem to know what's going on with me in my life at that point. They came to me with the record and Jimmy sang the song over the music and I looked at him and I was like, "OK, who is following me around? Who's got the camera?" They just know what's going on. They know me very well. It's easy to work with them, because they let me do 50 million tracks and take the best.
MTV: I heard Lenny Kravitz is playing guitar on the album?
Blige: He's playing on the beginning of a song called "PMS." He was playing on a song called "Rock Steady," and it got leaked, so you will probably hear it in the clubs in another month.
MTV: Is "PMS" just about that?
Blige: Exactly. It's not vulgar, either. It's just about the basics ... women will understand. And if any man loves his woman, he will understand, too.
MTV: With this album you were saying it's kind of different, but a return to the What's the 411? sound. Can you take us through how your sound has evolved over your four previous studio albums?
Blige: My first album is playful. Then my life crashed and burned down: trials, men, drama, no self-love, no identity. A little identity, but not a lot of love for myself, my life. Share My World: confusion, trying to turn [things around], but can't really turn them around. Mary, turn. This album, I'm back. Everything is behind me — now [come] have a good time with me. I'm only trying to bring things together and not destroy anything. I don't want no drama in my life, even though we have a little bit, but no more letting people control you. That's drama, because then you become something that you're not.
MTV: Since you've been doing your thing, there's been a lot of new up-and-coming female artists. And just like you were influenced by Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin, new artists always mention you as an influence. How do you feel about doing for younger females what those who preceded you did for you?
Blige: I'm really, really happy with other artists looking at me [and saying], "We want to be like Mary." It's a great honor for people to look at you and want to be like you. It's sad that a lot of identities are lost and a lot of careers are lost because there's sort of a clone thing going on. I listened to Chaka Khan and I listened to Aretha, but I don't sound like them. There's a difference. You gotta take what you need, love them and respect them, and build your own foundation with it. That's the message I want to give to every up-and-coming artist: Do everything that is going to help you later. If you clone somebody else, that's all they're gonna keep wanting from you. When it's time, are you going to know how to give you?
MTV: Not only do you encourage other singers, but women at your concerts seem really inspired by you as well. Why do you think that is?
Blige: Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your support, because it hasn't been easy. They stuck with me through the good and the bad. They stuck with me when I was fat at the Essence Awards [in 1998] and my stomach was hanging over my skirt, and they said, "Ahh!" I said, "I'm going to be all right, but thank you." And I came back in shape, and they were still there. I love my fans. I love what I'm doing, period. And I love the fact that I'm doing something that makes an ocean of women get up [on their feet]. I don't have no shame in anything I've done. Hey, I'm not perfect, and that's probably why a lot of women identify.
MTV: Who are some of the new maverick females that you like? Who are you listening to these days?
Blige: The only person that I'm really feeling — because she has an identity of her own, even though she has listened to Mary J. Blige — is Jill Scott. I like her an awful lot. I respect her style and what she is doing. I like what she is doing visually. I like what she is doing vocally. She's got her own package going. ... She's got enough respect for herself to say, "Nah, I can't do that. I want to do Jill." This new Jimmy Cozier cat, I'm loving his record.
MTV: I understand you worked with DMX on his upcoming project?
Blige: I did a song with DMX called "Angel." I think Regina Belle recorded it with him first, and I just recorded it again. We did a video for it, so I'm just waiting for the results.
MTV: Rick James gave you his blessing to use the name Mary Jane Girls for the girl group you're developing. What can fans expect from them?
Blige: People can look forward to seeing a mixture: Chinese, black and white, but soulful. Whatever white girl we get, she's going to be soulful like Christina Aguilera. ... They're going to be really pretty and really sexy and they are going to be young. Not like 13 — they'll be old enough to put sexy clothing on them.
MTV: With your album done now, are you working with any other people for their projects?
Blige: No. My artists are being developed. We're just shopping them around and we want to make a deal. The thing with the Mary Jane Girls is that we gotta find them. It shouldn't be hard to find three pretty girls of each nationality. We're doing a Mary Jane Girls contest on radio stations. Hopefully, the right ones will come.
MTV: You were talking about a tattoo you got: a male angel and a female angel on your back. You said it's called "Soul Mates." Do you feel as though your soul mate has arrived?
Blige: I think so. He has arrived. He's a reflection of me, what I've been working on for years. He's a reflection of why I had to go through everything I went through, to come out like this and draw the right things to me again. When you're seven years old, nobody can tell you anything different. [Now] I'm back to knowing who I am and I'm with somebody who knows who he is. He's gentle and kind. He's everything.