Mary J. Blige - Biography
By David Downs
New York R&B pop crossover superstar Mary J. Blige was plucked from obscurity by major labels and repackaged by Sean “Puffy” Combs into the “Queen of R&B” in 1992. Her rap and soul fusion debut, 1992’s What's the 411? (1992 MCA), demonstrated Blige’s exceptionally full voice and hood aesthetic, but Blige evolved through the pivotal releases Mary (1999 MCA) and The Breakthrough (2005 Geffen) to a more mainstream, positive, and upbeat R&B sound. Blige’s catalog is packed with number one albums and singles, and the former public housing resident has sold over 40 million albums, including seven records that were certified platinum. In addition to collaborating with U2, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John, Blige has won eight Grammys. Blige has publicly said that she has endured numerous cases of abuse and suffered from drug and alcohol addictions before finding God.
Mary J. Blige was born on January 11, 1971 in The Bronx, New York City, to Cora Blige. Blige’s father reportedly left his wife and the mother of his two children when Blige was four years old, a fact that Blige credits with creating a hole in her heart that she later filled with jewelry, cocaine, and sycophants. Blige spent some early years in Savannah, Georgia, singing in a Pentecostal church, but Cora moved the family back to New York where Mary spent the rest of her childhood in Schlobohm Houses – a Yonkers public housing development nicknamed “Slow Bomb” by its residents. She grew up fast but malformed, she says, and dropped out of high school during her junior year with no future plans. Blige always liked to sing but never thought she would make a career of it. At the age of 17, she made a karaoke-style recording of herself singing Anita Baker’s single “Caught Up in the Rapture,” which found its way to Uptown Records’ CEO Andre Harrell. In 1990, Harrell brought Blige, now age 19, into the record business where she began singing backup for acts like Father MC.
Within a couple of years, Uptown Records A&R head Sean “Puffy” Combs took Blige under his wing and enlisted producer Dave Hall, Mark Morales, and Mark Rooney to create an album that would exploit the connections between mature R&B and the exploding rap scene. What’s the 411? (1992 MCA), Blige’s debut album released in 1992, opens with various rap luminaries like Biggie Smalls giving shout-outs to the singer before her twelve tracks of R&B vamping over drum machine beats begins. Blige says she had no control over the project, and it was Combs who mixed her classic soul voice with urban beats and a boom bap sound. She covered Chaka Khan's “Sweet Thing,” while rappers Grand Puba, Heavy D., C.L. Smooth, De La Soul’s Mase, and EPMD’s Erick Sermon made guest appearances. This would be the first of many times an ensemble cast helped catapult a Blige project. Blige charted with “You Remind Me” (which also appeared in the Kevin Hooks film Strictly Business), but 411?’s single “Real Love” became the true classic, hitting number eight on the Billboard Top 40 Mainstream chart and number one on the R&B chart. 1993’s What’s the 411? Remix (1993 MCA) took “Sweet Thing” to the Top 40 Mainstream chart as well.
Blige says she wanted to have more involvement with her debut but couldn’t; instead, she was promoted as “the original queen of Hip-Hop and soul.” The debut sold over two million copies and the world latched onto her blonde hair and combat boots – symbols of the street diva. Fame threw the fatherless youngster into a new world where she bought every pair of shoes she always wanted, and surrounded herself with drinkers and partiers. Her role models had long been blinged-out drug dealers. She felt like she always had something to prove, fueling a negative “me against the world” attitude that she claims hurt her future.
Her successful 1994 follow-up, My Life (1994 MCA), also produced by Combs, turned down the rap sound but pumped up the ghetto pathos amplified by her dysfunctional relationship with fellow Uptown artist K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci. Blige later says she was addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and was severely depressed, as well as being abused by Hailey during that time. She cut out Combs and Uptown and hired Suge Knight as a financial advisor. In 1995, Blige and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man found Grammy acclaim with the Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson medley “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” which went to number three on the pop chart and number one on the R&B chart. In 1996, Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry” – a number two pop charter – gained speed from its place in film Waiting to Exhale. The single ended up on the album Share My World (1997 MCA), a number one pop hit thanks to the single “It’s On,” featuring R. Kelly. Blige says the album was made under duress as she tried to conquer drugs and alcohol, and dump Hailey. Blige reports that her life was threatened at this time and it encouraged her to quit drinking, drugging, and fighting in favor of more upbeat music. Share My World's increased soul sound resulted from Blige partnering with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. In 1998, Blige released the live album The Tour (1998 MCA) and she began work on her pivotal career record, Mary (1999 MCA).
1999’s Mary communicated that Blige was done with the hood life and it is her most pop album to date. In addition to singing R&B hits by Kirk Franklin and George Michael, Blige’s new album went to number one on the R&B chart and is full of uplifting music. The supporting cast for Mary included Aretha Franklin, Babyface, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, and Stevie Wonder. The hit single “All That I Can Say” was written and produced by Hip-Hop diva Lauryn Hill. Critics lambasted the blatant grab for the middle, but sales still climbed.
No More Drama (2001 MCA) took the single “Family Affair” to the top of the Hot 100 in 2001, but Blige didn’t feel successful. She was drinking heavily and searching for parents she never had. The death of singer Aaliyah and the threat of abandonment by her new boyfriend over her alcoholism forced her to get sober and turn to God. In 2003, Blige and Combs joined forces yet again for the lukewarm Love and Life (2003 Geffen) – an album for which she sacrificed a million ghetto fans to gain mainstream acceptance. It was obviously the beginning of a new period for Blige.
She scored a smash hit in 2005 with The Breakthrough (2005 Geffen), featuring collaborators J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Rodney Jerkins, will.i.am, Bryan Michael Cox, 9th Wonder, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Raphael Saadiq, Cool and Dre, and Dre & Vidal. The album debuted at number one and sold more than 700,000 copies in its first week, setting new records for a solo R&B female artist. The album's first single, “Be Without You” – a love jam about infantile co-dependence that combined piano melody, a boom-bap bumping drum machine, and her throaty vamping – dominated the R&B Albums chart for sixteen straight weeks and became the longest running number one song on the R&B chart in over 40 years. The Breakthrough and “Be Without You” garnered eight Grammy nominations, of which Blige won three.
A best-selling anthology, Reflections (2006 Geffen), preceded Mary’s eighth studio album, Growing Pains (2007 Geffen), which featured production by Tricky and Dream, Neyo and Stargate, The Neptunes, Dre & Vidal, Jazze Pha, and Sean Garrett, with guest appearances by Ludacris and Usher. Blige controlled more of her own production with husband and creative partner Kendu Isaacs, and her new positive message of self-reliance was ratified by hit single “Just Fine,” produced by Jazze Pha and Tricky, and written by Mary and Dream. The single is Blige’s eighteenth top ten single on Billboard’s R&B chart. The singer toured Europe for Growing Pains, but canceled further legs due to exhaustion.
Blige performed “Lean on Me” at the 2009 Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. She also began acting in the late 1990s, appearing on The Jamie Foxx Show and Entourage. Blige will also portray late jazz/blues/soul singer Nina Simone in a 2009 biopic. She has made millions of dollars endorsing Reebok, Air Jordan, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Gap, Target, American Express, M.A.C Cosmetics, Apple Inc., and Chevrolet.
On a personal level, Blige dumped the abusive Hailey in 1997 and married her manager Martin Kendu Isaacs in 2003. In 2006, Blige appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and announced that she was sexually molested at the age of five, went on to abuse drugs and alcohol, and later got clean thanks to her faith in Jesus Christ. She is currently comfortably settled into married life. In 2009 she released Stronger With Each Tear, followed by My Life 2...The Journey Continues (Act 1) in 2011.
Blige harnessed her natural vocal skills and rough upbringing to show the world a new fusion of street and soul. With the help of the mainstream music marketing machine in its prime – including arch-ringmaster Sean Puffy Combs – Blige became a household name, only to battle the addictions and sycophants that came with the title. Through eleven albums, Blige has fought her way to some semblance of stability, utilizing all-star ensemble casts to achieve her goals. She currently reigns supreme as one of the great R&B divas of out time with more work to come.