NEW YORK — Soul singer Mary J. Blige sits in a Midtown hotel drinking mineral water and discussing the phenomenon of R&B pop princesses like Beyoncé and Ciara, both of whom she thinks are “talented” and neither of whom she particularly seems to like.
“It’s not like Beyoncé can’t sing,” she explains. “But what’s missing is the personal. Those girls are groomed to be pop artists, to be perfect, to go to modeling school and learn how to walk and talk. Whereas we had to go through the trenches and get beat up and knocked down by life to learn how to articulate ourselves properly. And there’s no school for that. There’s no school for organic.”
There certainly isn’t, but if there were, Blige would likely be its headmistress. She’s the antithesis of the manufactured pop diva, crafting intensely personal albums about her ups and downs with men (generally more down than up) and her struggles to gain self-esteem. The difference now is that she’s no longer falling apart. She’s married to a man who doesn’t abuse her like the one who came before him, she’s given up drugs and she’s found God.
On Dec. 20, Blige will release her seventh studio album, “The Breakthrough,” which features collaborations with virtually every top-tier producer in hip-hop and R&B, including Will.I.Am, The Neptunes, Rich Harrison, Rodney Jerkins and Dr. Dre. But the big question is: Will the CD-buying public forgive her her happiness? “I know you heard it all before,” she sings on the CD’s first track. “Those same old metaphors/My love is so much more.”
Blige herself is perfectly aware that in soul music there’s an economic upside to misery. “It’s been proven,” she says. “I’ve been on the Internet and seen those people who are like ‘Mary J. Blige, I liked her better when she was sad.’ Well, that’s cool and all of that, but if you knew how sad I really, truly was, you wouldn’t ever say that again.”
Though she’s often photographed in Roberto Cavalli snakeskin motorcycle jackets or big furs from Dolce & Gabbana (the more dead animals the better), on this day she plays it down in a sleeveless black Vivienne Tam top and a pair of jeans. The simplicity becomes her, and like so many other hip-hop artists, she talks of one day doing her own fashion line.
She has creamy skin — save only for a large scar underneath her left eye, which she won’t talk about — and there are tattoos emblazoned on her arms (a cross on the left, her name spelled out on the right).
She’s refreshingly un-divalike. Unless, of course, she’s talking about herself and the drama of her life. Then she gets worked up, begins referring to herself in the third person, and it’s clear you are talking to a diva with a capital D — and certainly, this diva’s life is worthy of its “Behind the Music” special.
Blige spent her childhood in a dilapidated high-rise in a Yonkers, N.Y., housing project, where she was sexually molested as a little girl by a family friend. By 15, she was taking drugs, and by 16, she’d dropped out of high school. At 17, she walked into a strip mall, recorded a karaoke version of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” and scored herself a record deal.
In 1991, Uptown Records released her debut album, “What’s the 411,” which was produced largely by a 22-year-old guy who called himself Puff Daddy (now known as Diddy). And, fueled off a woman-been-wronged anthem called “Real Love,” it became a sensation.
From the beginning, her songs stuck mainly to themes of love and loss. She doesn’t have Prince’s flair for poetry and metaphor, nor does she make big records about race relations and violence like Marvin Gaye. As a singer, she may lack the technical precision of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. But because of her raw emotion and a Madonna-like ability to figure out what’s next, she’s had a big impact on the direction of R&B — perhaps bigger than any soul singer of her generation.
Jann Wenner says, “Mary J. Blige is probably the best female voice out there.” Al Sharpton goes even further. “Mary’s the bridge between R&B and hip-hop. She has the style you see in hip-hop and the talent of an Aretha Franklin or a Gladys Knight.”
Both Rodney Jerkins and Rich Harrison, the two most in-demand producers in R&B today, were discovered by Blige nearly a decade ago. And when she has worked with people who were more established, they’ve seemed to enhance, rather than replace, her own style.
On an up-tempo hip-hop track from “The Breakthrough” that Will.I.Am produced, a scratchy old Nina Simone recording is placed underneath Blige’s vocal and looped over and over again, making Simone’s voice sound almost like it’s going through a washing machine. It’s messy and brilliant and unlike anything that’s currently out there.
“A lot of the time,” says Diddy, “people go to producers to get their sound. But with Mary, you have no choice but to submit to hers. Her vibe just takes over.”
This has remained more or less true even when she was abusing drugs. Frequently, her personal problems seemed to buttress her hip-hop/projects-girl image. “I don’t think her label ever minded her self-destructiveness,” says one friend. “She played the part well, and they didn’t object.”
In 2001, Blige hit bottom on her own. “A very famous person died whose name was Aaliyah,” Blige says, referring to the young singer who died in a plane crash. And strange though it may seem, it had a big effect on Blige, who had one of those “it-should-have-been-me” moments. “Then 9/11 happened, and in the midst of this I had an album to drop called ‘No More Drama.'”
Blige also had a new boyfriend, Kendu Isaacs, who happened to be religious and wasn’t a drug addict. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Boom!'” says Blige of Isaacs, who’s now her husband and manager. “There was a lot of me running away and him running after me.” Now, they read the Bible together, she doesn’t wear shirts her “breast is getting ready to pop out of,” and she’s determined to keep her demons at bay.
“We don’t go out drinking like we used to,” says her friend Missy Elliott.
Blige isn’t apologizing for it, though. “There’s a place in Mary J. Blige that’s truly, truly dark, and I have to shut it down,” the singer says. “Because if I let her out, everything she worked so hard for goes to s—.”