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.