by John Polly
Yes, she’s had drama. Born in the Bronx and raised in the projects of Yonkers, New York, she’s fought for everything she’s had. And all the while, as Mary J. Blige battled her own personal demons – through bouts with drugs, alcohol and just life (and love’s) hard knocks – she’s firmly and fiercely ascended the throne to become the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
What began with her wildly successful first album, 1992’s “What’s the 411?” (produced with some help from a music biz upstart known as Sean “Puffy” Combs), just kept on keeping on, through subsequent platinum albums (“My Life,” “Share My World,” “The Tour,” “Mary,” and of course, 2001’s “No More Drama”), Grammy and Soul Train awards, platinum singles, Number One hits and scorching live performances. Her 2003 release “Love & Life” spawned another platinum hit, “Love @ 1st Sight.” And the constant amid all of this success? Blige’s own blisteringly honest approach to music. When she sings, you feel every ounce of emotion, passion, regret, anger, hope, vindication and joy that her powerful voice and raw talent delivers. She’s just Mary, and that’s more than anyone else can rightfully aspire to.
Her latest release, “The Breakthrough,” continues the course with 17 newly recorded songs. There are thumping rhythms, soulful ballads, pleas of passion and tears of joy and accomplishment, which blaze from beat to beat. And the most notable characteristic: A wiser sense of awareness and self. She’s been through a lot (with her fans right along for the ride), and while she’s now happily married (to musician Kendu Isaacs) and in control of her world, Mary J. Blige is still learning as she goes.
“For a very long time I’ve been talked about as the person who needed the biggest hug, or the person who won’t stop talking about her problems,” admits Blige, her tone now full of relaxed charm and smarts. “So I’ve been working on myself lately, not because of what people have said, but because I have been in so much pain for so many years. And I still deal with it, but at the end of the day, I choose to be happy. I choose to love my husband; I choose to be in love. And it’s not easy. I still have my own issues, and I still cry and I still get mad and I still throw temper tantrums. As a human being, you’re always going to be kind of messed up. But I’m in a realistic place, and it’s an appreciative place. There’s a song on the album called ‘Good Woman Down,’ and you can’t keep a good woman down. I’m still here. I still want to help myself, and I still want to help people. And I’m realistic. I’m not just like, ‘Oh, isn’t life amazing?’ No, life is not amazing. Life is life. And that’s where I’m at.”
Produced with contributions from such music biz heavyweights as Rodney Jerkins, the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dr. Dre, Bryan-Michael Cox, Raphael Saadiq and more, “The Breakthrough” serves as a testament to Blige’s liberated current state. Tunes like “About You” and her slammin’ instant classic “MJB Da MVP” celebrate her state of personal independence. Meanwhile, the album’s debut hit single, “Be Without You,” serves as a soulful salute to love and its undeniable impact. Throughout, the theme of remaining true to one’s self echoes strongly. Not surprisingly, it’s this vibe that may resonate with gay listeners. And that makes sense to Mary, too.
“It all translates; at the end of the day, we’ve all been picked on for some reason or another,” says Blige. “We all get bashed, we all get hurt. Different races get picked on every day. Regular hard-working people just trying to provide get picked on, as do gay people. The important thing is to realize that no matter what people’s opinions may be, they’re only just that – people’s opinions. You have to believe in your heart what you know to be true about yourself. And let that be that.”
Another theme common to Blige’s songs is the lovelorn struggle to deal with the players, cheaters and fools that mess with your heart – and your head. And yes, she knows that those are problems that we all share, regardless of sexual orientation. And she knows why. “Because we’re all people,” Blige stresses, with a knowing chuckle. “A lot of us weren’t loved the way we wanted to be as children, or even as adults. So we look for love in all the wrong places. And yes, you look for love in that person who’s probably going through exactly what you’re going through. He’s looking for love too, but he probably doesn’t even love himself.”
So what’s a love struck fool to do? The answer is simple, explains Blige: “Approve of yourself before you start running around wanting people to approve of you. Make sure you care about yourself and love yourself, and that you approve of yourself, with all of your mistakes and whatever. And if you fall, just get up and dust yourself off and keep moving.” No more drama, indeed – or at least much less.
These days, Blige is trying to let the drama thrive in her songs. Lending her a hand on this record is none other than Bono, as the two share vocal duties on an unforgettable, smoothly moving take on U2’s classic, “One.”
“I had to sing a U2 song at a tribute to Bono a few years back, and they sent me ‘One,'” she explains. “I had never heard it. Mind you, all I knew about U2 was that they were the biggest band in the world and that Bono was this philanthropist who cared about everybody. But I’m listening to the words of that song and the way he’s singing it, and I’m about to cry, thinking, ‘Nothing moves me like this.'”
Flash-forward several years, and Blige has included it on her latest. “Bono and I weren’t in the studio together, but we took his vocal from when he did the song at the big Hurricane Katrina benefit, and I sang around them. And it worked.”
Of course, Blige has been known to collaborate on memorable duets in the past, with folks as varied as Elton John and Eve, from George Michael to George Benson on to Lil’ Kim and Method Man. On “The Breakthrough,” she also shares the mic with Jay-Z (on “Can’t Hide from Love”). But there’s still another music superstar she’s eager to work with: “I really want to work with Kanye West,” states Blige. “He’s a genius. I bought his album in Paris on my last tour and it’s incredible.”
Likewise, Blige is also impressed with West’s outspoken politics, including his recent statements condemning homophobia in the hip-hop world. “It’s really good for all of us – for everybody – to have someone like Kanye around, because a lot of people are afraid to say things like that. And some people are just sent here to do that, to stand up for people. I really respect him for being that person.”
Personally, Blige is happy to admit she’s not been a witness to severe homophobia in the music biz: “I’m not around people like that,” she insists. “The straight men I know and work with are cool with gay people. It’s not an issue because they know who they are. And that’s the key to it all. Being comfortable with yourself.”
And like any woman working in showbiz, Blige has her own posse of gay guys who she works with and loves: “I’ve got Troy, my makeup artist; and Sam Fine, who’s I’ve always loved and adored, who’s also a makeup artist. One of my best, best friends, Kenny Green – who was responsible for songs on “What’s the 411?” – he passed from AIDS, but he was my best buddy. And I love these people. And there’s Elton John.” She laughs when that last famous name comes up. “He and I are really close. He calls me all the time to check up on me. He’s always looking out for me.”
Otherwise, she’s got her tight-knit family, which comes first. And yes, she’s got her girlfriends. “We laugh really hard when we go out,” says Blige. “We’ll have a glass of wine, or we’ll go to a club and dance. I’m not sitting around like a hermit; I’m enjoying my life!”
Which maybe after all these years – and all the drama – may be Blige’s biggest breakthrough of all.