From a career — and physical — standpoint, the years have been good to Mary J. Blige. When you look at her today, and tune in to what she has to say, in some respects it is hard to believe that this is the same lady who emerged in 1992 with an album titled “What’s the 411?” produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs.
Blige was from the Bronx, New York, from a background that would hardly be considered upscale. In fact, she was rough, a far cry from the glamorous, refined songstresses who were riding high on the charts during that period, including Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Vanessa Williams.
Also, she had not graduated from high school. She always felt bad about that and so subsequently earned a GED in 2010. There had been substance abuse problems as well.
The plan was to capitalize on that raw edge, those hard-core “urban” roots. In fact, Combs had decided that Blige would be marketed as “the Queen of Ghetto Love.”
But Andre Harrell, Uptown Records president/CEO, decided to compromise with something far less harsh and much more marketable, “the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.”
THE ALBUM was an immediate hit, yielding back-to-back No. 1 singles with “You Remind Me” and “Real Love.”
Early on, Mary J. Blige had an inclination to sing and write songs that were reflections of her feelings, her loves, her heartbreaks, etc.
By wearing her heart on her sleeve, so to speak, Blige formed a strong bond with thousands of women, primarily Black women, who could relate. Her stories were, in a sense, their stories, her tears were their tears, and her triumphs were their triumphs.
“I’m one of them,” she said at the time. “You don’t know how many times people have told me that they’d been depressed and just wanted to die. But then a special song caught their ear and that helped give them renewed strength. That’s the power music has.”
NO SURPRISE, then, that her second album was titled “My Life” and the third, “Share My Life.”
The fourth, “Mary,” continued along those lines but was unique in the sense that, in keeping with her determination to “keep it real,” had a cover that clearly showed a scar on the left side of her face, most likely a reminder of a physical altercation from another time and place.
All of these albums were mega-sellers. However, eventually it got to the point where Blige was tired of the “victim stance,” no matter how many women related to it.
It was time to get her life together and that change of mindset, and the positive changes that followed, were reflected in the music. Hence, “No More Drama” was the perfect title for the next album, followed by “Love & Life.”
IRONICALLY, as Blige’s life was coming together, and she was becoming increasingly glamorous — the public had become very much interested in what she was wearing at all times — some fans were somewhat disgruntled.
While she was getting off the “pity pot,” these fans — and in some cases “fan” might not be the appropriate word — wanted her to stay the way she was. Rather than get their own lives together, they preferred to continue to commiserate with “the heartache queen.”
But that wasn’t going to happen.
“The Breakthrough,” Mary J. Blige’s seventh album, was released in late 2005. It immediately rocketed to No. 1 on both the national R&B and Pop charts, selling a whopping 727,000 copies within the first week of its release.
By this time, incidentally, the public had become aware that one of Mary J. Blige’s biggest fans had become none other than Oprah Winfrey, queen in another realm of show business.
THAT ALBUM was followed by “Growing Pains” which came very close to equaling the sales of “Breakthrough.”
There was no turning back: “Stronger With Each Tear” was released in 2009 and “My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1)” in 2011. Sales remained solid and consistent.
Mary J. Blige had long since been elevated to superstardom.
As for her personal philosophy by this time, it could be summed up in her “declaration” statement: “Only God knows where the story ends for me, but I know where the story begins. It’s up to us to choose whether we win or lose, and I choose to win.”
BY 1998, Blige had decided that she wanted to try her hand at acting and did so on “The Jamie Foxx Show,” portraying a preacher’s daughter who wanted to sing more than gospel. Interestingly, Ron Isley played her father.
Other TV and film credits include “Ghost Whisperer” (2007), “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” (2009), “30 Rock” (2009) and “Rock of Ages” (2012). She also portrayed Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in the Lifetime movie “Betty and Coretta.”
She had been set to portray Nina Simone in a biopic on the iconic and enigmatic singer, but she later dropped out and was replaced by Zoe Saldana.
Mary J. Blige, who is among those who keep R&B alive, has a life and career that have been a series of “breakthroughs” with, in all probability, more to come.
Steve Holsey contributed to this story.