Icon: Mary J. Blige

Peter S. Scholtes

By Peter S. Scholtes

on 11.21.11 in Icons

Mary J. Blige sometimes refers to herself in the third person, which you could take as a lingering tic from her monster diva days – a period of cocaine and lashing out that she’s put behind her. But in truth, there were always two Marys: the person, whom we may never know, and her most avid chronicler, who takes audiences through her life like a preacher bringing congregations to catharsis.

Blige was still living in the Schlobohm projects of Southwest Yonkers when she heard her first hits on the radio in the early ’90s, and made the transition from around-the-way girl to Queen of Hip-Hop Soul so quickly that she hardly had a chance to have anything like a normal young womanhood, whatever that might look like. So she defined ghetto fabulous, and came to see her nonstop after-party as a trap. She wore her pain as a badge of realness, like the facial scar highlighted on the cover of 1999′s Mary, and ascended with hip-hop values in the mainstream. Yet the scratch down the middle of her life was right there in her dusky voice – missing notes on the first song of her first album but expressing so much that nobody cared. Her fans saved her, she said, and she might be right.

With her cool-flame melisma, Blige recorded defining R&B/rap duets on singles with Method Man, Ludacris and many others. But solo and on her albums was where she shaped great songs, making fierce solidarity with those listening closest. As she told VIBE in 2005, “Icon? No, I’m you.”

1992-98: Queen of Hip-Hop Soul

What's The 411?

Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige and executive producer Sean "Puffy" Combs didn't invent hip-hop-inflected, female-sung R&B in 1992 — En Vogue and Soul II Soul had beat them by a couple years in a tradition stretching back to Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You." But Blige was hip-hop in a new way: vocally tough and emotionally frank, with an unmistakable New York walk and evident roots in both all-night Pentecostal gospel and African American radio's Quiet Storm heart. Catching the ear of Uptown Records via a taped karaoke cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture," Blige was like fire through a window compared to Baker's smoke under the door, her mezzo-soprano as womanly, but short-circuiting technique for brutal, eloquent feeling.

So the bad notes and dirty drum loop of the single "You Remind Me" reached the charts first, while much of the rest of her debut album — "Reminisce," "Love No Limit," "Slow Down," "Changes I've Been Going Through," her cover of Khan's Rufus hit "Sweet Thing," and the title track, featuring Blige rapping with Grand Puba — is down-home and gritty. But the all-time statement of purpose is "Real Love," written and produced by Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys and Mark C. Rooney, who took a broke-off beat from Audio Two's "Top Billin'" to build out an Elton John-sized corner-stoop of madly swinging piano rock and buoyant synthesizer strut, the wail-along chorus something few other singers could pull off.

The song went Top 10 pop and No. 1 R&B, maybe because Blige's yearning accepted her impulse to fall too hard and fast, establishing a dynamic of audience sympathy before it would seem cultivated. To watch her MTV Unplugged performance of "I Don't Want to Do Anything" with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci is to see a woman painfully in love with a man unable or unwilling to reciprocate.

The album sold 3.3 million copies in the U.S. without any Grammy nominations, the biggest long-player of Blige's career. A remix collection followed in '93 compiling the "Hip-Hop Mix" of her signature song, featuring the Notorious B.I.G. ("Big E. Smalls").

My Life

Mary J. Blige

Both singer and sound were more confident on this second album from Mary J. Blige, the first she co-wrote, and considered by many fans her best. Out went the chilly New Jack Swing echo and synth deco of her debut; in came an extended heart-to-heart with fans by the fire over a beat that meant business.

Let it be admitted that the sound is more conventional: The '70s soul samples of the title track and "Be Happy" are seamlessly blended or recreated rather than recontextualized in a rap way — the direction executive producer Sean "Puffy" Combs and frequent studio guest the Notorious B.I.G. were taking hip hop in general. But if D.C.-hired producer Carl "Chucky" Thompson was brought in to make Blige sound like a true soul singer at home in her mother's music, he did his job: Blige makes Rose Royce's "I'm Goin' Down" her own, in part because down was exactly where she was going.

Or as she would sing 11 years later, "'94 was My Life, and my life wasn't right, so I reached out to you and told you what I been through." She also told you what she was still going through: "I'm satisfied even when I cry," she sings on "No One Else," presumably to the track's co-producer K-Ci Hailey, whom she later described as the inspiration for much of My Life's blueness. "Mary's Joint," with its longing melody later borrowed for Janet Jackson's "I Get Lonely," sounds like hopelessness kidding itself, while the No. 1 dance hit "You Bring Me Joy" seems unconvinced. Most double-edged of all is "I Love You," with its repurposed Isaac Hayes piano line and dog-whistle synth (a nod to Dr. Dre), as funky and resigned as Marvin Gaye at his most autumnal. Has the title sentiment ever sounded more doomed?

Blige put the question to herself squarely on "Be Happy": "How can I love somebody else, if I can't love myself enough to know when it's time, time to let go?" The album sold 2.8 million copies in the U.S. and was nominated for a Grammy in the R&B album category. But it marked the twilight of Uptown Records and a parting of ways with Puffy.

Share My World

Mary J. Blige

The case could be made for every Mary J. Blige album after her first two as an atmosphere to be bathed in, essential — and probably too long — the primary variable being the quality and the number of "nobody loves you better" hits and "why do I love so hard in the first place?" deep cuts. Which is another way of saying this first record without Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs (on Uptown parent company MCA) doesn't miss him; not because he had no influence but probably because he had so much, both on her and on contemporary R&B in general in 1997.

So the Trackmasters executive-produce for elegant intimacy, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis keep it upscale-emo, and others smooth out Blige, but not by much. And there are more hits than ever, half of them slow jams for an improving singer now apparently out from under a cloud. "Missing You" sounds giddy with desire after Sunday morning mass. Malik Pendleton's "Seven Days" is both complicated in a real-life way and pop-happy in how it lists off the days of the week. And the Rodney Jerkins-crafted title track is lushly harmonized full-band Valentines soul, rephrasing the melody of "Mary's Joint" as if to say, I'm not that desperate girl anymore. Babyface's masterpiece "Not Gon' Cry," a No. 2 pop and No. 1 R&B smash, must have contained some truth about that cloud: "While all the time that I was loving you, you were busy loving yourself," Blige sings, maybe envying the latter ability.

The album sold 2.8 million in the U.S. — as well as My Life — and cracked the U.K. Top 40, while picking up another Grammy nomination for R&B album. If it was too slow to expand her appeal, that was the world's loss, not R&B's.

The Tour

Mary J. Blige

Working a Los Angeles crowd with her tectonic voice and hotly responsive live band as much as her "What's up, L.A.?" patter, Mary J. Blige asserts mastery over three albums' worth of R&B hits because where others say they give it all for the fans, Blige in her moment actually seems to be giving it all for her fans. Ad-libbing over a snippet of Kool & the Gang's "Summer Madness," she introduces "You Gotta Believe" by saying, "this segment of the show is for everybody that went through the struggle with me during the It's My Life album" (she can re-title it how she wants). After leaving some of herself on the floor for "Not Gon' Cry," she interjects, "Was he worth it, ladies? Hell, no!," and later dedicates ["you're my"] "Everything" to the audience.

She's a pro even when singing her mind out, years past living down an early rep for clumsiness. So additional songs recorded at Sony Studios in New York fill out the sequence rather than paper over gaps, letting her bond with her parents' generation by rendering Aretha Franklin's "Day Dreaming" and Dorothy Moore's "Misty Blue" as forcefully as anything else. If the 1998 release containing these tracks now seems quaint beside her studio albums, it was everywhere then, solidifying Blige's status as a voice of comfort on long bus rides into the night, and offering one of contemporary R&B's few essential live albums.

1999-2004: Just Mary


Mary J. Blige

Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the wonderfully lackadaisical "All That I Can Say," and her connection to the song helped press Mary J. Blige further on the consciousness of bohemia and white critics, even as the diffuse 1999 album it opened sold fewer copies (2.1 million in America). The tune was an inspiration, yet apparently slight, just a few jazzy keyboard chords from the blissed-out template of Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It," tossed over a variation of the steppers beat that launched "Real Love." But Blige found something beautiful and valuable, even soulful in the vocal equivalent of luxuriating. And did Hill touch anything as great again in the '00s?

Sir Elton John rendered his "Bennie and the Jets" riff for "Deep Inside," one of the more candid and absorbing singles about the loneliness of a rich and famous person, while Gerald Isaac's "Your Child" put Blige in one of her best wronged-woman roles: meeting the baby that her man has never mentioned having, in the arms of the mother at the door, whom the narrator can't help but respect. (It spun off a No. 1 dance remix.) A duet with K-Ci Hailey allowed the exes to place cards on the table behind his chorus "I'm not looking to fall in love with you." And a duet with Aretha Franklin became a study in contrast true to the song's shared sisterhood between an older and younger learner in love.

None of which was the equal of "All That I Can Say," but Blige by now was a mood to explore and a talent to catch up on. She earned three Grammy nominations without any raps and not many more hooks.

No More Drama

Mary J. Blige

Some kind of distance — if not yet sobriety — allowed Mary J. Blige to step back from her holding pattern of lengthy emoting and return with shorter, catchier affirmations of the good decisions she had in her. And if this fifth album also introduces the less personal idea that contemporary sounds go better with Mary, the hits allowed her to talk to more girls than ever.

So "Family Affair," her first pop No. 1, is about neither family nor affairs, but instead its Dr. Dre-produced state-of-the-club funk lope, and the mild notion that losing your mind on the dance floor might be an act of discipline and peace-making; love the beat, don't beat the lover. "Steal Away" escapes with the Neptunes, while the title track formalizes the view of her life as a soap opera needing a channel-flip by lifting the theme from The Young and the Restless and giving it a gospel climax. Even the ostensibly personal "PMS" feels light, rewriting Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" to vent with ladies about "the worst part of being a woman." "Dance for Me" (sampling the Police's "The Bed's Too Big Without You") is a return to hip-hop soul, and provided the title for a remix collection in 2002.

But except for the Chucky Thompson-produced "PMS," it all feels like minor Blige, tentative and slick where her past fusions were so bold. The album marked another dip in sales (1.9 million units), so a skittish MCA re-released No More Drama in 2002 with a new cover (another white background) and song selection, deleting "Crazy Games," "Keep It Moving," and "Destiny" to add "Rainy Dayz" (featuring Ja Rule), the cheater ballad "He Think I Don't Know," and a bonus Sean "P. Diddy" Combs remix of the title track, while swapping out the album version of "Dance for Me" (with Ahkim Miller) for the single featuring Common — four new tracks in all. The company could take it as vindication that "He Think I Don't Know" won a Grammy, and the re-release sold 1.2 million. But MCA was soon swallowed by Geffen anyway.

Love & Life

Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige has said that the moment she got serious about getting clean and sober was getting the call that R&B singer Aaliyah had died in a plane crash, a few days before the release of 2001's No More Drama and a couple weeks before 9/11. Blige wanted to live, and began acting and loving accordingly. But making hits is tough enough when your creative circuitry isn't wired for misery, and the artist played catch-up with the person.

So her 2003 reunion with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs stalled on the radio — "Love @ 1st Sight," with Method Man, felt downright awkward — while the accompanying album was a commercial disappointment by Aaliyah standards (1 million units sold). It was also Blige's most underrated as a result: of a piece, consistently beautiful, and always with a sliver of painful complication. Diddy's samples are noticeable again as patches of vinyl records, rougher than even her classic hip-hop soul on "Don't Go," "Friends," "When We" (just a bridge short of immortality), and the irrepressible "Ooh!" Then the acoustic closer "Ultimate Relationship (A.M.)" suggests Blige's hardness has as much to do with how her voice is recorded as with beats — she would remain high and naked in the mix from here on out.

In love and life, Blige decided she could have both, and married co-producer Kendu Isaacs. She also parted ways with Combs again, having fought over the production.

2005-2009: The Breakthrough

The Breakthrough

Mary J. Blige

After three straight albums of commercial decline, Geffen pushed for a Mary J. Blige best-of in 2005. Instead she came back with her biggest album since her debut, a work of popular soul so bracingly assured in its Blige-ness that the title — as autobiographical in its way as all the others — would have provided a readymade headline had critics not been slow to come around.

The R&B No. 1/Pop No. 3 "Be Without You" was only the entry point, though it was her most joyful since "Real Love," a kind of call-and-response Million Couple March crafted by Bryan-Michael Cox and set to tinkling piano, with Blige working an imagined audience of dancers ("put your hands up/ Fellas, tell your ladies she's the one") and FM listeners ("Call the radio if you just can't be without your baby"). The heart of the album was this therapeutic uplift at a more focused level of self-consciousness — part Oprah Winfrey, part Atmosphere's Slug. Blige really was doing it for the fans now.

Had she waited to fully unload until the music was right? Credits list a dozen-plus producers, but for once Blige sounds fully in charge. The album opens with a show of production force (the sped-up-O'Jays of "No One Will Do"), closes with a show of vocal force (a kamikaze "One," with U2 backing), and annexes the Game's "Hate It or Love It" in between for one of 50 Cent's better choruses and a "Glass Onion" on Blige's discography. These gestures made, the singer turns to those who understand her best: "Good Woman Down" is "for all my troubled sisters," in whom she confides about her father's abuse of her mother, while "Take Me As I Am" romanticizes the bond this confidence creates. "Baggage" and "Father in You" address her husband, or anyone else who ever cared for an abused heart, so maybe those are for fans too.

The album sold 3.1 million copies in the U.S., and was nominated for eight Grammys, winning three. Her best-of came the following year with four new tracks.

Growing Pains

Mary J. Blige

Each Mary J. Blige album in the '00s after The Breakthrough sold less than its predecessor, but this was also an era when moving 1.6 million copies (or 1, or .6) meant more than it used to, and when discrete designations such as hip-hop and soul meant less. Modern Top 40 was now the amalgam Blige helped create, ruled by the younger women she'd helped empower. But for listeners who stuck with her, it was a period of more strident peaks amid noblesse Blige.

So this 2007 album's "Grown Woman," with a lusty Ludacris, somehow conjures a more hip-hop and soulful hip-hop soul, while "Work That" retreats from neither big-sisterhood nor her apparent determination to make no two funk beats alike. (Of a dozen producers, just a few stayed on from The Breakthrough.) Tricky Stewart's "Just Fine" finds Blige liking what she sees in the mirror on her way out to the club, even if its bridge is too breezy to suggest what might threaten her self-image.

But the classic is "Roses," half-spoken by Blige with a blues-actress's flair, admitting over one of Stewart's more techno pulses, "It ain't all candy/ This love stuff is demanding," before shouting, "You go figure it out. You suck it up." If love is a beginning rather than a happily-ever-after, making peace might mean accepting how messed up you are.

Stronger withEach Tear

Mary J. Blige

Would Mary J. Blige's sumptuously harmonized "Hood Love" have been a bigger hit four years earlier? One of her great singles (an R&B No. 25 under the title "We Got Hood Love"), it had the same production team as "Be Without You" and a similarly dancing vocal, but with the ache of love fought for rather than the glow of love surrendered to. That might be the difference right there, but it's hard to escape the feeling that pop wanted less to do with Blige or the 'hood in general by 2009.

For the album, her first since her debut to escape Grammy recognition, she personalized the club production so thoroughly you'd think the latest styles were invented for her. A gorgeously insistent "Tonight" offers urgent assurance that all marital problems can be put off by, if not resolved in, the bedroom. "I Am" loves you better than Share My World's "I Can Love You." And "I Can See in Color," her best collaboration with Raphael Saadiq, is a retro slow-builder for the Precious soundtrack, a project close to Blige's heart.

My Life II...The Journey Continues (Act 1) - Deluxe Edition

Mary J. Blige

When the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul recorded her second album, 1994's rightly revered My Life, she was in a bad personal place - struggling with depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and an abusive relationship with Jodeci's K-Ci. But somehow she managed to repurpose that pain to create the rare smash R&B album of its era with a pervasively introspective, often melancholy tone. Its many samples, cover versions and interpolations of classic soul conjured an image of Blige turning to her favorite records for guidance through her darkest hour. "How can I love somebody else/ if I can't love myself enough to know when it's time, time to let go?" she asked in summation of the album's central struggle in "Be Happy," the concluding track on a song suite that plays out like one sustained prayer for sobriety and serenity.

Suggesting both a return to that creative apex and a contrast to its many emotional lows, Blige's largely celebratory 10th studio release comes heavy with hip-hop cameos in its first and late-second-act tracks, then rallies with wiser and far stronger ballads. She may have famously vowed to turn her back on drama, but its gravitational pull lingers: "Bad boys ain't no good, good boys ain't no fun," she laments in the Drake-featuring "Mr. Wrong." And she's still turning to vintage jams for sustenance: Producer Darkchild brings a pounding house beat to an otherwise reverent rendition of Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody."

The track that most convincingly argues that she has moved on from her embattled past is a stunning cover of Justin Timberlake associate Matt Morris's "Someone to Love You," here titled "Need Someone." It's an acoustic country-soul slowie in which she offers a newly fortified shoulder to lean on, one that won't stray or falter. It's Blige's quiet strength that here speaks loudest. - Barry Walters