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Blige, Mary J.

Mary J. Blige

1971—

Singer, songwriter

"Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing," Ron Givens wrote in Stereo Review in 1993. When the vocalist came to the public's attention the previous year, she became a magnet for the kind of superlatives music critics love to create. In an interview for the Source, Adario Strange described his subject as a "delicate ghetto-princess songstress," "the flower of the ghetto," and "the real momma of hip-hop R&B." In his Washington Post review of Blige's second album, Geoffrey Himes called her "the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation." She rose in esteem over the years to be crowned by the music media as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul.

Grew Up in the Ghetto

Part of the fuel for Blige's rocket to hip-hop stardom was her "street cred." She was born on January 11, 1971, in the Bronx, and raised in Savannah, Georgia, before moving to the Schlobohm Housing Projects—or "Slow Bomb" projects, as its residents called it, in Yonkers, New York. Blige's coming of age on the mean streets of the Bronx provided her with the "credentials"

demanded by audiences who also grew up on city streets. Blige described the setting for Essence's Deborah Gregory, recalling that there "was always some sh** going on. Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped. Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down." The family, including Blige's older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Cora's earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. "My mother made me strong," Blige told Strange. "Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman," she continued.

Blige's environment also provided the sound and encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Blige's ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sister in the choir at the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. "We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us," Blige told Emil Wilbekin in a Vibe interview. She expanded on the experience for Essence's Gregory, remembering that she "felt so much better going to church every Sunday, just being there, testifying and just being kids. It was a lot of fun." By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Though she attended Lincoln High School—a school that specialized in the performing arts—studied music and participated in school sponsored talent shows, she dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige did not expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position, helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. She told Allison Samuels of Newsweek, "People in church would say ‘You should do something with your voice.’ And I'd be like ‘What? I am living in the projects in Yonkers. What am I going to do with my voice?’" Her first "demo" tape was, in fact, just a karaoke style recording made one night at a mall to entertain friends when she was 17. Before too long, however, the cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up In The Rapture" found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records: Blige's mother gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B vocalist Jeff Redd. Redd passed it on, enthusiastically, to Harrell. On Harrell's initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptown's growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean "Puffy" Combs (later known as P. Diddy) became the young singer's mentor when the company began preparing her album.

Invented the New Jill Swing

In 1992, What's the 411? introduced Blige's voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single "Real Love," 411 reached double-platinum status after it sold more than two million copies in a short time. Its appeal crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the Top Ten on Billboard's pop chart. When Havelock Nelson gave the album an "A" in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon know—that Blige was "the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk" and that she "conquers everything she tackles." He concluded that the album was "one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date."

Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill Swing. She became known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. "Mary has become an icon of today's young Black nation," wrote the Source's Strange, "representing the feminine yet strong-willed woman that many young girls hope to be, and the sexy yet not too cute for a ruffneck girlfriend that many brothers from the hood long for." In April of 1993, Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had "become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women." Strange dubbed her the "first true feminine hero of R&B lovin' ghetto residents." The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, "I think I'm creating a style for women—a more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now." As Strange noted, the impact of 411 showed up soon on other performers, as "baseball caps and boots suddenly became in vogue for female singers" and "divas everywhere demanded hip-hop tracks to back up their cubic zirconian efforts."

At a Glance …

Born Mary Jane Blige on January 11, 1971, in Bronx, NY; raised in Savannah, GA, and Yonkers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician; married Kendu Isaacs (a music producer), 2003. Education: GED.

Career:

Singer, 1992-; actress, 1998-.

Awards:

Soul Train Music Award, 1993; New York Music Award; NAACP Image Award; double-platinum album award for What's the 411?; Grammy Award, for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (with Method Man), 1995; American Music Award, 1998; Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, 1997, 1998; celebrity spokesperson, MAC AIDS Fund, 2001, 2002; Grammy Award, for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, 2002; Grammy Award, for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (with Sting), 2003; Grammy Award, for Best R&B Album, for Best R&B Song, and for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance, all 2006.

Addresses:

Web—www.mjblige.com.

The accolades were marred, however, by some bad publicity. It seemed to begin at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but in standard street gear: jeans and a shirt. The public expressed its disapproval instantly: as the Source's Strange reported, "radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans." That incident occurred in the midst of other, less public, reports of bad behavior. Wilbekin recounted the history for Vibe, recalling that the "stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism are endless. Mary was eight hours late to one magazine photo shoot, and threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television. Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it the crowd booed her off the stage."

Worked on Image

It was only after the release of her second album that Blige was able to reflect on what might have fed her behavior at the time. She speculated that the attention had disconcerted her—that she had not been prepared, socially or professionally, for the kind of intense spotlight music celebrity creates. Harrell suggested to Wilbekin in Vibe that "the whole experience was overwhelming for her. She wasn't ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion." Friend and manager Steve Lucas told Gregory that "Mary got an undeserved bad rap because of what was going on around her—the confusion, the lack of organization. When you communicate honestly with Mary, there aren't any problems. She's willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to be successful. She's basically a very sweet, humble person." The difficulty of the situation was magnified, Blige admitted to Rolling Stone's Hochman, by her basic shyness. "I'm just not a very open person," she told him. "The most open I am is when I sing. I've always been kind of shy." On a more concrete note, she also felt there were problems with her management, which she changed before recording the second album. Combs was fired at Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, where Blige took her management business while still recording with Uptown.

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of public reputation. She worked extensively with the company's president, Angelo Ellerbee, whom she later credited with not just polishing her interview style, but changing her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin in Vibe that Ellerbee "gave me a totally new kind of life. There was a time when I wouldn't read nothin'," but Ellerbee sparked her interest in books her for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers: My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboard's R&B album chart.

In 1996, Blige released another album, Share My World. Along with the album, she sported a new attitude: self-love. She parted company from people who she felt were negative influences, including her producer and mentor, Combs, Deathrow Records president Suge Knight, and K-Ci of Jodeci fame, her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Her new attitude can also be traced to her renewed commitment to God. Blige spoke to Christopher John Farley of Time, "God comes first. If I don't love him, I can't love anybody. And if I can't love me, I can't love nobody."

Share My World also broadened Blige's horizons. She worked with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, TrackMasters, and R Kelly. Though known for songs with strong hip hop beats, Share My World's songs were more mellow and showed Blige headed for mainstream R&B and pop. Amy Linden of People exclaimed, "Some might gripe that the overall sound is more polished than on her two previous multi-platinum CDs—and it is." The album also included the Babyface-produced and written song, "Not Gon' Cry," from the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. The song became the jilted black woman's anthem.

Continued to Transform Herself

Blige also continued to work on her image. In the beginning she did not care about her career or herself. During her interviews, Blige opened up and spoke about her lifestyle, which included using hard drugs. She told Kevin Chappell of Ebony, "I did a lot of stuff, things that a lot of girls wouldn't do, because of a lack of self-love. I did drugs, I did a lot. I did things, not just weed, but beyond…." Her finances also were not in order. She made both management and personal changes. "I'm a young lady now; with growing up comes a lot of responsibilities. So there are a lot of things that I have to do, and there are a lot of things that I can't do anymore…. I want to challenge myself more to see what comes out of it. Patience is a virtue to me," she was quoted as saying in Ebony.

In 1998 Blige headlined her own tour, and that summer she released a live album, called The Tour. "It was a great energy. And it's really at the concert; there are no studio tricks. I'm not afraid for the audience to hear my voice crack," she told Anita Samuels of Billboard. The album featured a medley of previous hits and two new covers. Blige also started her own label, Mary Jane Entertainment. She toured again as a headliner in The Mary Show in 2000 and appeared with Aretha Franklin on the annual VH1 Divas Live broadcast in 2001. With seemingly bottomless energy, Blige made her television acting debut on The Jamie Foxx Show in 1998.

Blige's next album, simply entitled Mary found Blige teaming up with legends such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. Critics described the album as more mature, toning down the raunchier elements of her persona that had been evident since her debut and repositioning herself as a true soul singer. Mary was Blige's first attempt to truly shape her new image and the results were spectacular. The single "All That I Can Say" with Lauryn Hill hit the Billboard top ten charts and the album was nominated for both a Grammy and a Billboard Music Award.

Starting in 1999 and continuing on into 2000 and 2001, Blige has been very open and vocal about the path that her career and personal life took throughout the 1990s and how hard she has worked to turn those around into something that she can be proud of. Blige talked of an abusive relationship that she finally realized she had to get out of before something serious happened to her. In an interview with Essence she says of the relationship, "When I looked back I knew I did the right thing, because if I didn't break out I was going to die. Somebody wanted me dead and subliminally it must have been me, because I drew someone to me who wanted to kill me." Blige has spoken at length about her newfound faith in religion. Blige has openly said that it is God that has allowed her to make the changes that she has made in her life. In a Jet interview with Calerence Waldron, Blige said, "I'm trying to build my foundation on the wisdom, the Word, so that I will be able to pass on the right information to the universe. Because you get exactly what you put out there. I'm just happy with that."

One of the main regrets that Mary J. Blige has made public was the fact that she dropped out of high school before getting her diploma. Blige has repeatedly told interviewers that part of the reason that she was so careless with her money and her fame during her early career was due to the fact that she didn't have the proper education and didn't know how to properly invest her money or who she should trust. Blige studied with tutors and gained her Graduate Equivalence Degree (GED). Starting in 2000, Blige began touring schools, trying to convey the message that education was the most important thing and that students needed to stay in school. She told Jet, she emphasized to teens to "… stay in school. Just be patient and pray. Finish school, finish high school. Don't drop out."

Made Further Strides

Blige continued to further her career and image with her 2001 release of her album No More Drama. This much-developed album with songs such as "Love," "Family Affair," and "No More Drama" earned her another Grammy nomination and secured Blige's place in the soul diva category. Blige attributed the popularity of the album to the fact that she herself is continuing on her in journey of self discovery and that her fans have turned the corner with her. In a Jet magazine interview, Blige says of No More Drama, "This album is a continuation of a turnaround. The Mary album was a cleanup. It was about cleaning up me. And this album? It's about solidifying and moving even further with the things I've learned and the strides I've made."

The positive reviews on Blige are endless. Music critic Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Blige: "Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas," he remarked in the Washington Times, "but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations that have sugarcoated romantic crooners from Dinah Washington to Anita Baker are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation." J.D. Considine, of Baltimore's Evening Sun, noted that "Blige has more than surpassed expectations" and argued that as "good as the grooves are, it's her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs." Similarly, Himes declared her a "major voice of her generation."

She reunited with Diddy for Love and Life, in 2003. Also that year, she married music producer Kendu Isaacs. Blige won a Grammy award in 2004, with Sting, for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for their work, "Whenever I Say Your Name." In addition to making hit after hit, Blige continued to act. She has appeared in Prison Song, but it may be her last film as she explained in People, "I didn't like being on the set all day and doing scenes over and over…. I like performing more than getting up in the morning." Nevertheless, Blige did continue to act, appearing on the CBS series Ghost Whisperer in 2007. Blige has lent her name and celebrity to support causes she believed in. She has appeared in ads for cosmetic company MAC's Viva Glam lipstick, which raised money for the MAC AIDS fund. Blige has performed at three VH1's Divas Live concerts that helped raise money for the cable channel's Save the Music Foundation. Blige was also featured on Carson hair company's Dark & Lovely's permanent hair color box, named Red Hot Mary, after the singer.

Achieved a Breakthrough

As Sean Combs explained to Strange in the Source, Blige "represents all the honeys in the urban communities in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles [who are] growing up and going through regular every day things that are a part of hip-hop culture." Blige sums up herself the best. Though gifted with a beautiful voice, she lacked confidence in herself. Mary J. Blige has come through her growing pains into a mature young lady who cares about herself. She stated in Time, "You better believe that I give a damn now."

Her newfound confidence showed in her later recordings. In The Breakthrough, Blige included song that showcased her past, such as "Enough Cryin" and "Baggage," as well as her calmer present sense of self, as in "Be Without You." Blige explained her different approach to this album to Richard Harrington of the Washington Post: "I remember when I was a woman that was solely about pain—everything was pain, pain, pain. Now we're selling triumph over tragedy, and that's what [the album] was all about—being a victor instead of a victim. I put a lot of work into trying to get myself together, to get to the point where I could have the strength to show people my weaknesses like that." The album was a triumph itself, selling more copies in its first week than any other R&B album for a female solo artist. Blige was also honored in 2006 with eight Grammy nominations for her music—more than any other artist that year. For her efforts, she won three Grammy Awards, for Best R&B Album, for Best R&B Song, and for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance.

Blige continued her personal healing and next revisited her past as a way of moving on. She offered listeners her own take on her 15-year career with her 2006 album, Reflections—A Retrospective. The album featured re-recordings of some of her biggest hits as well as four new songs, including "We Ride (I See the Future)." "I'm just taking a look back before I move forward again," Blige told Jessica Herndon of People about the album. Blige's transformation from an unfocused young woman to a poised, principled R&B diva without missing a beat proves the Queen still reigns.

Selected discography

Albums

What's the 411?, Uptown/MCA, 1992.

My Life, Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Share My World, MCA, 1996.

The Tour, MCA, 1998.

Mary, MCA, 1999.

No More Drama, MCA, 2001.

Dance for Me, MCA, 2002.

Love & Life, Geffen, 2003.

Not Today, Geffen, 2003.

Love Is All We Need, Geffen, 2004.

The Breakthrough, Geffen, 2005.

Reflections—A Retrospective, Geffen, 2006.

Sources

Books

Brown, Terrell, Mary J. Blige, Mason Crest, 2007.

Torres, Jennifer, Mary J. Blige, Mitchell Lane, 2007.

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993; July 25, 1998.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Dallas Morning News, April 4, 2002.

Ebony, January 1998; January 1999; June 2000.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995; November 2001.

Evening Sun, (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

Jet, November 29, 1999; August 28, 2000; September 18, 2000; October 1, 2001; January 29, 2007, p. 60.

Newsweek, May 5, 1997.

People, December 5, 1994; May 19, 1997; July 17, 2000; January 8, 2007, p. 42.

Philadelphia Tribune, August 6, 2006, p. 18.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993; January 25, 2007; February 8, 2007.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Time, April 28, 1997.

Us Weekly, February 12, 2007, p. 48.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994; February 11, 2007, p. Y5.

On-line

All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 5, 2005).

"Mary J. Blige," MTV.com, www.mtv.com/bands/az/blige_mary_j/bio.jhtml (January 7, 2005).

Mary J. Blige, www.mjblige.com (January 5, 2005).

"Mary J. Blige, Making ‘The Breakthrough,’" National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5165863 (April 3, 2007).

Rock On The Net, www.rockonthenet.com (January 5, 2005).

Other

Additional information for this sketch was obtained from Uptown Records.

—Ondine E. LeBlanc, Ashyia N. Henderson, Ralph Zerbonia, and Sara Pendergast

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Blige, Mary J. 1971–

Mary J. Blige 1971

Singer, songwriter

Early Life Shaped Her

Ushered in New Jill Swing

Attitude Turned Off Fans

Shared Her World

More Mature Mary

Selected discography

Sources

Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing, Ron Givens wrote in Stereo Review in 1993. When the vocalist came to the publics attention the previous year, she became a magnet for the kind of superlatives music critics love to create. In an interview for the Source, Adario Strange described his subject as a delicate ghetto-princess songstress, the flower of the ghetto, and the real momma of hip-hop R&B. In his Washington Post review of Bliges second album, Geoffrey Himes called her the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation. But more than anything else, the music media has crowned her the Queen of Hip Hop Soul.

Early Life Shaped Her

Part of the fuel for Bliges rocket to hip-hop stardom was her street cred. She was born on January 11, 1971 in Yonkers, and grew up in the Schlobohm Housing Projectsor Slow Bomb projects as its residents called it. Bliges coming of age on the mean streets of the Bronx provided her with the credentials demanded by audiences who also grew up on city streets. Blige described the setting for Essences Deborah Gregory, recalling that there was always some shit going on. Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped. Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down. The family, including Bliges older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Coras earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. My mother made me strong, Blige told the Source. Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman, she continued.

Bliges environment also provided the sound and encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Bliges ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sister in the choir at the House of Prayer Pente

At a Glance

Born Mary Jane Blige, January 11, 1971, in Yon-kers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician.

Career: Worked various part-time jobs in late teens. Released albums, Whats the 4111 1992; Whats the 41U-The Remix, 1993; My Ufe, 1994; Share My World, 1996; The Tour, 1998; Mary, 1999; No More Drama, 2001; appeared on The Jamie Foxx Show, 1998; film, Prison Song, 2000; performed in VMs Divas Live concerts, 1999, 2001, 2002.

Awards: Soul Train Music Award, 1993; New York Music Award; NAACP Image Award; double-platinum album award for Whatfs the 411Ì; Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album, 1995, 1999, 2002; Grammy award, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, with Method Man, 1996; American Music Award, 1998; Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, 1997, 1998; celebrity spokesperson, MAC AIDS Fund, 2001, 2002.

Addresses: Record company MCA Records, c/o Maria Kleinman, National Director of Publicity, 70 universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA, 91608; Web-she www.mjblige.com.

costal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us, Blige told Emil Wilbekin in a Vibe interview. She expanded on the experience for Essences Gregory, remembering that she felt so much better going to church every Sunday, just being there, testifying and just being kids. It was a lot of fun. By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Though she attended Lincoln High Schoola school that specialized in the performing artsstudied music and participated in school sponsored talent shows, she dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige did not expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position, helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. She told Allison Samuels of Newsweek, People in church would say You should do something with your voice. And Id be like What? I am living in the projects in Yonkers. What am I going to do with my voice? Her first demo tape was, in fact, just a karaoke style recording made one night at a mall to entertain friends when she was 17. Before too long, however, the cover of Anita Bakers Caught Up In The Rapture found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records: Bliges mother gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B vocalist Jeff Redd. Redd passed it on, enthusiastically, to Harrell. On Harrells initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptowns growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean Puffy Combs became the young singers mentor when the company began preparing her album.

Ushered in New Jill Swing

In 1992 Whats the 411? introduced Bliges voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single Real Love, 411 reached double-platinum status after it sold over two million copies in a short time. Its appeal crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the Top Ten on Billboards pop chart. When Havelock Nelson gave the album an A in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon knowthat Blige was the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk and that she conquers everything she tackles. He concluded that the album was one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date.

Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill Swing. She became known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. Mary has become an icon of todays young Black nation, wrote the Sources Strange, representing the feminine yet strong-willed woman that many young girls hope to be, and the sexy yet not too cute for a ruffneck girlfriend that many brothers from the hood long for. In April of 1993, Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women. The Source dubbed her the first true feminine hero of R&B lovin ghetto residents. The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, I think Im creating a style for womena more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now. As the Source noted, the impact of 411 showed up soon on other performers, as baseball caps and boots suddenly became in vogue for female singers and divas everywhere demanded hip-hop tracks to back up their cubic zirconian efforts.

Attitude Turned Off Fans

The accolades was marred, however, by bad publicity. It seemed to begin at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but in standard street gear: jeans and a shirt. The public expressed its disapproval instantly: as the Source reported, radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans. That incident occurred in the midst of other, less public, reports of bad behavior. Wilbekin recounted the history for Vibe, recalling that the stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism are endless. Mary was eight hours late to one magazine photo shoot, and threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television. Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it the crowd booed her off the stage.

It was only after the release of her second album that Blige was able to reflect on what might have fed her behavior at the time. She speculated that the attention had disconcerted herthat she had not been prepared, socially or professionally, for the kind of intense spotlight music celebrity creates. Harrell suggested to Wilbekin in Vibe that the whole experience was overwhelming for her. She wasnt ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion. Friend and manager Steve Lucas told Essence that Mary got an undeserved bad rap because of what was going on around herthe confusion, the lack of organization. When you communicate honestly with Mary, there arent any problems. Shes willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to be successful. Shes basically a very sweet, humble person. The difficulty of the situation was exacerbated, Blige admitted to Rolling Stones Hochman, by her basic shyness. Im just not a very open person, she told him. The most open I am is when I sing. Ive always been kind of shy. On a more concrete note, she also felt there were problems with her management, which she changed before recording the second album. Combs was fired at Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, where Blige took her management business while still recording with Uptown.

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of public reputation. She worked extensively with the companys president, Angelo Ellerbee, whom she later credited with not just polishing her interview style, but changing her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin in Vibe that Ellerbee gave me a totally new kind of life. There was a time when I wouldnt read nothin, but Ellerbee sparked her interest in books her for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers: My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboards R&B album chart.

Shared Her World

In 1996 Blige released another album, Share My World. Along with the album, she sported a new attitude: self-love. She parted company from people who she felt were negative influences, including producer and mentor, Sean Combs, Deathrow Records president Suge Knight, and K-Ci of Jodeci fame, her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Her new attitude can also be traced to her renewed commitment to God. Blige spoke to Christopher John Farley of Time magazine, God comes first. If I dont love him, I cant love anybody. And if I cant love me, I cant love nobody.

Share My World also broadened Bliges horizons. She worked with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, TrackMasters, and R Kelly. Though known for songs with strong hip hop beats, Share My Worlds songs were more mellow and showed Blige headed for mainstream R&B and pop. Amy Linden of People Weekly exclaimed, Some might gripe that the overall sound is more polished than on her two previous multi-platinum CDsand it is. The album also included the Babyface-produced and written song, Not Gon Cry, from the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. The song became the jilted black womans anthem.

Blige also continued to work on her image. In the beginning she did not care about her career or herself. During her interviews, Blige opened up and spoke about her lifestyle, which included using hard drugs. She told Kevin Chappell of Ebony, I did a lot of stuff, things that a lot of girls wouldnt do, because of a lack of self-love. I did drugs, I did a lot. I did things, not just weed, but beyond Her finances also were not in order. She made both management and personal changes. Im a young lady now; with growing up comes a lot of responsibilities. So there are a lot of things that I have to do, and there are a lot of things that I cant do anymore. I want to challenge myself more to see what comes out of it. Patience is a virtue to me, she was quoted as saying in Ebony.

1998 saw Blige headlining her own tour. During the summer she released The Tour, a live album. It was a great energy. And its really at the concert; there are no studio tricks. Im not afraid for the audience to hear my voice crack, she told Anita Samuels of Billboard. The album featured a medley of previous hits and two new covers. Blige also started her own label, Mary Jane Entertainment. She has also jump-started an acting career with an appearance on The Jamie Foxx Show.

More Mature Mary

Bliges next album, simply entitled Mari; found Blige teaming up with legends such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. Critics described the album as more mature, toning down the raunchier elements of her persona that had been evident since her debut and repositioning herself as a true soul singer. Mary was Bliges first attempt to truly shape her new image and the results were spectacular. The single All That I Can Say with Lauryn Hill hit the Billboard top ten charts and the album was nominated for both a Grammy and a Billboard Music Award.

Starting in 1999 and continuing on into 2000 and 2001, Blige has been very open and vocal about the path that her career and personal life took throughout the nineties and how hard she has worked to turn those around into something that she can be proud of. Blige talked of an abusive relationship that she finally realized she had to get out of before something serious happened to her. In an interview with Essence she says of the relationship, When I looked back I knew I did the right thing, because if I didnt break out I was going to die. Somebody wanted me dead and subliminally it must have been me, because I drew someone to me who wanted to kill me. Blige has spoken at length about her new found faith in religion. Blige has openly said that it is God that has allowed her to make the changes that she has made in her life. In a Jet interview with Calerence Waldron, Blige said, Im trying to build my foundation on the wisdom, the Word, so that I will be able to pass on the right information to the universe. Because you get exactly what you put out there. Im just happy with that.

One of the main regrets that Mary J. Blige has made public was the fact that she dropped out of high school before getting her diploma. Blige has repeatedly told interviewers that part of the reason that she was so careless with her money and her fame during her early career was due to the fact that she didnt have the proper education and didnt know how to properly invest her money or who she should trust. Blige studied with tutors and gained her Graduate Equivalence Degree (GED). Starting in 2000, Blige began touring schools, trying to convey the message that education was the most important thing and that students needed to stay in school. She told Jet, she emphasized to teens to . stay in school. Just be patient and pray. Finish school, finish high school. Dont drop out.

Blige continued to further her career and image with her 2001 release of her album No More Drama. This much developed album with songs such as Rainy Dayz, Family Affair, and No More Drama earned her another Grammy nomination and secured Bliges place in the soul diva category. Blige attributed the popularity of the album to the fact that she herself is continuing on her in journey of self discovery and that her fans have turned the corner with her. In a Jet magazine interview, Blige says of No More Drama, This album is a continuation of a turnaround. The Mary album was a cleanup. It was about cleaning up me. And this album? Its about solidifying and moving even further with the things Ive learned and the strides Ive made.

The positive reviews on Blige are endless. Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Blige: Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas, he remarked in the Washington Times, but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations that have sugarcoated romantic crooners from Dinah Washington to Anita Baker are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation. J.D. Considine, of Baltimores Evening Sun, noted that Blige has more than surpassed expectations and argued that as good as the grooves are, its her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs. Similarly, Himes declared her a major voice of her generation.

In addition to makiing hit after hit, Blige continued to act. She has appeared in Prison Song, but it may be her last film as she explained in People Weekly, I didnt like being on the set all day and doing scenes over and over. I like performing more than gettin up in the morning. Blige has lent her name and celebrity to support causes she believed in. She has appeared in ads for cosmetic company MACs Viva Gla, lipstick, which raised money for the MAC AIDS fund. Blige has performed at three VHls Divas Live concerts that helped raise money for the cable channels Save the Music Foundation. Blige was also featured on Carson hair companys Dark & Lovelys permanent hair color box, named Red Hot Mary, after the singer.

As Sean Combs explained to Strange in the Source, Blige represents all the honeys in the urban communities in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles thats growing up and going through regular every day things that are a part of hip-hop culture. Blige sums up herself the best. Though gifted with a beautiful voice, she lacked confidence in herself. Mary J. Blige has come through her growing pains into a mature young lady who cares about herself. She stated in Time, You better believe that I give a damn now.

Selected discography

Whats the 411?, Uptown/MCA, 1992.

My Life, Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Share My World, MCA, 1996.

The Tour, MCA, 1998.

Mary, MCA, 1999.

No More Drama, MCA, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993; July 25, 1998.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Dallas Morning News, April 4, 2002.

Ebony, January 1999; June 2000; January 1998.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995; November 2001.

Evening Sun, (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

Jet, November 29, 1999; August 28, 2000; September 18, 2000; October 1, 2001.

Newsweek, May 5, 1997.

People, December 5, 1994; May 19, 1997; July 17, 2000.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Time, April 28, 1997.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994.

On-line

All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com

www.mjblige.com

Rock On The Net, www.rockonthenet.com

Other

Additional information for this sketch was obtained from Uptown Records.

Ondine E. LeBlanc, Ashyia N. Henderson, and Ralph Zerbonia

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"Blige, Mary J. 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/blige-mary-j-1971-0

Blige, Mary J. 1971–

Mary J. Blige 1971

Singer, songwriter

Early Life Shaped Her

Ushered in New Jill Swing

Attitude Turned Off Fans

Shared Her World

Selected discography

Sources

Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing, Ron Givens wrote in Stereo Review in 1993. When the vocalist came to the publics attention the previous year, she became a magnet for the kind of superlatives music critics love to create. In an interview for the Source, Adario Strange described his subject as a delicate ghetto-princess songstress, the flower of the ghetto, and the real momma of hip-hop R&B. In his Washington Post review of Bliges second album, Geoffrey Himes called her the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation. But more than anything else, the music media has crowned her the Queen of Hip Hop Soul.

Early Life Shaped Her

Part of the fuel for Bliges rocket to hip-hop stardom was her street cred. She was born on November 11, 1971 in Yonkers, and grew up in the Schlobohm Housing Projectsor Slow Bomb projects as its residents called it. Bliges coming of age on the mean streets of the Bronx provided her with the credentials demanded by audiences who also grew up on city streets. Blige described the setting for Essences Deborah Gregory, recalling that there was always some shit going on. Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped. Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down. The family, including Bliges older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Coras earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. My mother made me strong, Blige told Strange. Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman, she continued.

Bliges environment also provided the sound and encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Bliges ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and

At a Glance

Bom Mary Jane Blige, November 11, 1971, in Yonkers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician.

Career: Worked various part-time jobs in late teens. Released albums, Whats the 411? 1992; Whats the 411? -The Remix, 1993; My Life, 1994; Share My World, 1996; The Tour, 1998. Appeared on The Jamie Foxx Show, 1998.

Awards: Soul Train Music Award, 1993; New York Music Award; NAACP Image Award; double-platinum album award for Whats the 411Ì; Grammy nomination for Best R & B Album, 1995; Grammy award, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, with Method Man, 1996; American Music Award, 1998; Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, 1997, 1998.

Addresses: Record companyMCA Records, c/o Maria Kleinrnan, National Director of Publicity, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA, 91608.

Gladys Knight. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sister in the choir at the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us, Blige told Emil Wilbekin in a Vibe interview. She expanded on the experience for Essences Gregory, remembering that she felt so much better going to church every Sunday, just being there, testifying and just being kids. It was a lot of fun. By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Though she attended Lincoln High Schoola school that specialized in the performing artsstudied music and participated in school sponsored talent shows, she dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige did not expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position, helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. She told Allison Samuels of Newsweek, People in church would say You should do something with your voice. And Id be like What? I am living in the projects in Yonkers. What am I going to do with my voice? Her first demo tape was, in fact, just a karaoke style recording made one night at a mall to entertain friends when she was 17. Before too long, however, the cover of Anita Bakers Caught Up In The Rapture found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records : Bliges mother gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B vocalist Jeff Redd. Redd passed it on, enthusiastically, to Harrell. On Harrells initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptowns growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean Puffy Combs became the young singers mentor when the company began preparing her album.

Ushered in New Jill Swing

In 1992 Whats the 411? introduced Bliges voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single Real Love, 411 reached double-platinum status after it sold over two million copies in a short time. Its appeal crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the Top Ten on Billboards pop chart. When Havelock Nelson gave the album an A in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon knowthat Blige was the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk and that she conquers everything she tackles. He concluded that the album was one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date.

Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill Swing. She became known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. Mary has become an icon of todays young Black nation, wrote the Sources Strange, representing the feminine yet strong-willed woman that many young girls hope to be, and the sexy yet not too cute for a ruffneck girlfriend that many brothers from the hood long for. In April of 1993, Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women. Strange dubbed her the first true feminine hero of R&B lovin ghetto residents. The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, I think Im creating a style for womena more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now. As Strange noted, the impact of 411 showed up soon on other performers, as baseball caps and boots suddenly became in vogue for female singers and divas everywhere demanded hip-hop tracks to back up their cubic zirconian efforts.

Attitude Turned Off Fans

The accolades was marred, however, by some bad publicity. It seemed to begin at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but in standard street gear: jeans and a shirt. The public expressed its disapproval instantly: as the Sources Strange reported, radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans. That incident occurred in the midst of other, less public, reports of bad behavior. Wilbekin recounted the history for Vibe, recalling that the stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism are endless. Mary was eight hours late to one magazine photo shoot, and threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television. Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it the crowd booed her off the stage.

It was only after the release of her second album that Blige was able to reflect on what might have fed her behavior at the time. She speculated that the attention had disconcerted herthat she had not been prepared, socially or professionally, for the kind of intense spotlight music celebrity creates. Harrell suggested to Wilbekin in Vibe that the whole experience was overwhelming for her. She wasnt ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion. Friend and manager Steve Lucas told Gregory that Mary got an undeserved bad rap because of what was going on around herthe confusion, the lack of organization. When you communicate honestly with Mary, there arent any problems. Shes willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to be successful. Shes basically a very sweet, humble person. The difficulty of the situation was exacerbated, Blige admitted to Rolling Stones Hochman, by her basic shyness. Im just not a very open person, she told him. The most open I am is when I sing. Ive always been kind of shy. On a more concrete note, she also felt there were problems with her management, which she changed before recording the second album. Combs was fired at Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, where Blige took her management business while still recording with Uptown.

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of public reputation. She worked extensively with the companys president, Angelo Eller-bee, whom she later credited with not just polishing her interview style, but changing her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin in Vibe that Ellerbee gave me a totally new kind of life. There was a time when I wouldnt read nothin, but Ellerbee sparked her interest in books for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurst on called Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers: My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboards R&B album chart.

Shared Her World

In 1996, Blige released another album, Share My World. Along with the album, she sported a new attitude: self-love. She parted company from people who she felt were negative influences, including producer and mentor, Sean Combs, Deathrow Records president Suge Knight, and K-Ci of Jodeci fame, her on-again, off-again boyfriend. Her new attitude can also be traced to her renewed commitment to God. Blige spoke to Christopher John Farley of Time magazine, God comes first. If I dont love him, I cant love anybody. And if I cant love me, I cant love nobody.

Share My World also broadened Bliges horizons. She worked with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, TrackMasters, and R Kelly. Though known for songs with strong hip hop beats, Share My Worlds songs were more mellow and showed Blige headed for mainstream R&B and pop. Amy Linden of People Weekly exclaimed, Some might gripe that the overall sound is more polished than on her two previous multi-platinum CDsand it is. The album also included the Babyface-produced and written song, Not Gon Cry, from the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. The song became the jilted black womans anthem.

Blige also continued to work on her image. In the beginning she did not care about her career or herself. During her interviews, Blige opened up and spoke about her lifestyle, which included using hard drugs. She told Kevin Chappell of Ebony, I did a lot of stuff, things that a lot of girls wouldnt do, because of a lack of self-love. I did drugs, I did a lot. I did things, not just weed, but beyond Her finances also were not in order. She made both management and personal changes. Im a young lady now; with growing up comes a lot of responsibilities. So there are a lot of things that I have to do, and there are a lot of things that I cant do anymore. I want to challenge myself more to see what comes out of it. Patience is a virtue to me, she was quoted as saying in Ebony

1998 saw Blige headlining her own tour. During the summer she released The Tour, a live album. It was a great energy. And its really at the concert; there are no studio tricks. Im not afraid for the audience to hear my voice crack, she told Anita Samuels of Billboard. The album featured a medley of previous hits and two new covers. Blige also started her own label, Mary Jane Entertainment. She has also jump-started an acting career with an appearance on The Jamie Foxx Show.

The positive reviews on Blige are endless. Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Blige: Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas, he remarked in the Washington Times, but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations that have sugarcoated romantic crooners from Dinah Washington to Anita Baker are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation. J.D. Considine, of Baltimores Evening Sun, noted that Blige has more than surpassed expectations and argued that as good as the grooves are, its her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs. Similarly, Himes declared her a major voice of her generation.

As Sean Combs explained to Strange in the Source, Blige represents all the honeys in the urban communities in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles thats growing up and going through regular every day things that are a part of hip-hop culture. Blige sums up herself the best. Though gifted with a beautiful voice, she lacked confidence in herself. Mary J. Blige has come through her growing pains into a mature young lady who cares about herself. She stated in Time, You better believe that I give a damn now.

Selected discography

Whats the 411?, Uptown/MCA, 1992.

My Life, Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Share My World, MCA, 1996.

The Tour, MCA, 1998.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993; July 25, 1998.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Ebony, January 1998.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995.

Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

Newsweek, May 5, 1997.

People, December 5, 1994; May 19, 1997.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Time, April 28, 1997.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994.

Other

Additional information for this sketch was obtained from Uptown Records.

Ondine E. LeBlanc and Ashyia N. Henderson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
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"Blige, Mary J. 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Blige, Mary J. 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/blige-mary-j-1971

"Blige, Mary J. 1971–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/blige-mary-j-1971

Blige, Mary J.

Mary J. Blige

Singer, songwriter

At a time when the mainstream music industry seems to be crumbling, Mary J. Blige has proven to be one of the music industry's few bankable stars. Enduringly popular, the sultry Bronx-born R&B singer-songwriter continues to make a difference with her music and as a leader in her community.

Stereo Review's Ron Givens wrote, "Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing." In his Washington Post review of Blige's second album, Geoffrey Himes called her "the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation." But more than anything else, the music media has crowned her the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Blige's youth in one of New York's poorer neighborhoods—the Slowbam Projects in Yonkers—where she was born on January 11, 1971, provided her with the "credentials" demanded by audiences who also grew up on the city streets. Her family, including Blige's older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Cora's earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. "My mother made me strong," Blige told Adario Strange in Source. "Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman."

Blige's environment also provided the sound and encouragement that shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Blige's ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sisters in the choir at the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Before she dropped out of school in the eleventh grade in about 1987, she had also participated in school shows.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige didn't expect to make her living at it, and like most teenagers in her position, she helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. However, a cover she made of Anita Baker's "Rapture" found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records. On Harrell's initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptown's growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean "Puffy" Combs (later P. Diddy) became the young singer's mentor when the company began preparing her album.

What's the 411? Spurred R&B Revival

In 1992 What's the 411? introduced Blige's voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single "Real Love," the album reached double-platinum status after it sold more than two mil- lion copies in a short time. It crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the top ten on Billboard's pop chart. When Havelock Nelson praised the album in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon know; that Blige was "the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk" and that she "conquers everything she tackles." He concluded that the album was "one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date." Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill.

Blige would become known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had "become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women." Strange dubbed her the "first true feminine hero of R&B lovin' ghetto residents." The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, "I think I'm creating a style for women—a more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now."

The applause was dimmed, however, by bad publicity, including at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but wearing jeans and a shirt, causing an outcry of disapproval from fans. There were other less public reports of bad behavior. Emil Wilbekin of Vibe mentioned "stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism," as well as drinking during interviews and performances. Blige herself admitted that she had not been prepared for the spotlight of celebrity status. She also felt there were problems with her management, and she took steps to make changes before recording her second album. Combs had moved out of Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, and Blige took her management business there while still recording with Uptown.

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of a public reputation. She worked extensively with the company's president, Angelo Ellerbee, whom she later credited with helping her change her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin that Ellerbee "gave me a totally new kind of life." Ellerbee even sparked her interest in books for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurston titled Their Eyes Were Watching God.

For the Record …

Born Mary Jane Blige on January 11, 1971, in Yonkers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician. Married Kendu Isaacs (works in the music industry), December 7, 2003.

Sang with mother and sister in House of Prayer Pentecostal Church choir; signed by Uptown Records, released debut album, What's the 411?, 1992; headlined tours in 1998 and 2000; released No More Drama, 2001; appeared as singer on numerous television programs including Late Show with David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, Saturday Night Live, Entourage, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; appeared as actress on television programs such as Strong Medicine and Ghost Whisperer; released albums Love & Life, 2003, The Breakthrough, 2005, Growing Pains, 2007; co-founded Mary J. Blige and Steve Stout Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, Inc., 2008.

Awards: Soul Train Music Awards, 1993, 2000; Grammy Award, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (with Method Man), 1996; American Music Award, Favorite Soul/R&B Album, for Share My World, 1998; Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, 1997, 1998, 2000; Grammy Award, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (with Sting), for "Whenever I Say Your Name," 2004; BET Award, Best R&B Female Artist, 2006; American Music Award, Favorite Soul/R&B Album, for The Breakthrough, 2006; Billboard Music Award, R&B/Hip-Hop Album of the Year, for The Breakthrough, 2006; Billboard Music Award, Song of the Year, for "Be Without You," 2006; Billboard Music Award, R&B/Hip-Hop Artist of the Year, 2006; Grammy Awards, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; Best R&B Song for "Be Without You" Best R&B album, for The Breakthrough, 2007; BET Award for Best Collaboration, for "Runaway Love" (with Ludacris), 2007; Grammy Awards, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, for "Disrespectful" (with Chaka Khan); Best Gospel Performance for "Never Gonna Break My Faith" (with Aretha Franklin, tied with the Clark Sisters), 2008.

Addresses: Record company—Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404; MCA Records, 2220 Colorado Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Web site—Mary J. Blige Official Web site: http://www.mjblige.com.

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers. My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboard's R&B album chart.

"Major Voice of Her Generation"

Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Blige's new take on R&B in My Life: "Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas," he remarked in the Washington Post, "but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations … are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation." J.D. Considine, writing for Baltimore's Evening Sun, wrote that "Blige has more than surpassed expectations" and argued that as "good as the grooves are, it's her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs."

Blige's subsequent albums, Share My World (1997), The Tour (1998), and Mary (1999), brought new recognition for the singer. She earned a Grammy Award in 1996 for her rap performance with Method Man, followed by nominations in 1997 and 1998. She received Soul Train Lady of Soul awards in 1997 and 1998, and in 1998 received an American Music Award. Additionally, she toured as a headline act in 1998.

As the 1990s closed, Blige's self-generated strength reflected clearly in her subsequent projects, and she developed a new sense of social commitment, melding her career with worthy causes that concerned her deeply. The proceeds from her 2000 tour, The Mary Show, went to benefit One Hundred Black Men, Inc., of New York City, and in her capacity as spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics' Viva Glam III line, she was invited to appear at the United Nations General Assembly Hall for the Race Against Poverty Awards in 2000 and 2001.

Blige's career continued to see a resurgence during the early 2000s. Her first album of the decade, No More Drama (2001), featured tracks produced by Dr. Dre, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, among others, and she showed growth in her life and vocals with a more feel-good, upbeat message. A more straightforward R&B album, No More Drama included cover songs that paid tribute to her parents. The single "Family Affair," produced by Dre, was a major hit, and the album itself went triple platinum, selling nearly two million copies within six months of its release. A reworked "special edition" version of the album, released under the same name in 2002, sold an additional 1.1 million copies.

She reunited with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for love & life in 2003, another upbeat release, which featured guest appearances by Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Method Man, although critics gave it only mixed reviews. The album only sold about 944,000 copies, making it her lowest selling studio release. Blige's professional life continued to evolve, however, and her personal life saw growth as well, with a deep embracing of faith and a December 2003 marriage to Kendu Isaacs, a music industry insider who became her manager.

The Breakthrough Won Multiple Awards

In February of 2004 she shared the Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, for "Whenever I Say Your Name" with Sting. She received more honors for her next album, 2005's The Breakthrough, which employed 13 different producers. Another uplifting, self-assured album, it lived up to its title, immediately connecting with listeners. It sold about 727,000 copies in its debut week, helped by the strong hit single "Be Without You," which rode the R&B charts for an incredible 16 months. It was her first number one single on Billboard's Adult R&B chart in ten years. Clarence Waldron of Jet claimed that "The Breakthrough is the real Mary, and her fans can hear it." For the album, Blige won multiple BET Awards, American Music Awards, and Billboard Music Awards, as well as eight Grammy Award nominations.

Explaining Blige's appeal, Kevin Chappell of Ebony claimed that "Blige infatuates … an increasing number of people. Men adore her. Women respect her. Little girls want to be her. Singers want to sing like her. Her music has achieved legitimate crossover success. One of the few Black women in music to prove that she has staying power, Blige has moved to diva status, a level of superstardom that few ever achieve."

Also a Humanitarian

Continually working and refining her craft, Blige released Growing Pains in early 2008. Another number one album, it prompted Robert Christgau of Rolling Stone to comment: "Growing Pains is an edgier record than The Breakthrough, but Blige has definitely lost or just outgrown the brassy urgency of her twenties. Then, her confessions had the feel of painful late-night outbursts: these days, they sound more like she's had a lot of therapy."

Therapy or no, Blige has worked obsessively to stay on top of her profession and to provide service to the less fortunate. When she isn't touring with the likes of Jay Z, Alicia Keyes, and others, the superstar/ businesswoman acts as spokesperson for Carol's Daughter beauty products (her mother's company) and is the co-founder and spokesperson for the Mary J. Blige and Steve Stoute Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, Inc. On FFAWN's Web site, former project-kid-turned-superstar Blige said that she and Stoute created the organization "because I believe every young woman, if given encouragement and a helping hand (a hand filled with resources), can reach her greatest potential. It is my hope that FFAWN will be a vehicle to help other women reach greater heights despite their environment, despite low self-esteem, despite their immediate circumstances."

Selected discography

What's the 411?, Uptown/MCA, 1992.

My Life, Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Share My World, MCA, 1997.

The Tour (live), MCA, 1998.

Mary, MCA, 1999.

No More Drama, MCA, 2001.

Ballads, Polygram, 2001.

No More Drama (special edition), MCA, 2002.

Dance for Me, MCA, 2002.

love & life, Geffen, 2003.

The Breakthrough, Geffen, 2005.

Reflections (A Retrospective), Geffen, 2006.

Growing Pains, Geffen, 2007.

Soul is Forever: The Remix Album, RGS, 2008.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993; August 9, 2003; January 7, 2006; February 4, 2006; December 16, 2006.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Ebony, August 2002; March 2004.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995; April 2001.

Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

Hollywood Reporter, February 7, 2002.

Interview, September 2001, p. 164.

Jet, July 3, 2000; October 16, 2000; December 25, 2000; October 1, 2001; September 1, 2003; January 23, 2006; July 17, 2006; December 11, 2006; December 25, 2006.

Music Week, December 16, 2006.

Newsweek, August 25, 2003.

People, December 5, 1994.

PR Newswire, October 12, 2000; February 12, 2001; March 13, 2001; April 10, 2001.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994.

WWD, December 12, 2005.

Online

"The Continuing Drama of Mary J. Blige," Rolling Stone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/9447919/the_continuing_drama_of_mary_j_blige (March 10, 2006).

E! Online, http://www.eonline.com (November 26, 2003).

"Growing Pains review," Rolling Stone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com (December 13, 2007).

"Mary J. Blige," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 16, 2008).

"Mary J. Blige," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com (June 16, 2008).

"Mary J. Blige," Mary J. Blige and Steve Stoute Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now,http://www.ffawn.org (June 22, 2008).

"Q&A: Mary J. Blige," Rolling Stone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/13153301/qa_mary_j_blige (January 25, 2007).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Uptown Records publicity materials.

—Ondine E. Le Blanc and Ken Burke

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Blige, Mary J.

Mary J. Blige

Singer, songwriter

For the Record

Whats the 411? Spurred R&B Revival

Learned to Manage Fame

Major Voice of Her Generation

Selected discography

Sources

In a 1993 article in Stereo Review, Ron Givens wrote, Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing. When the vocalist came to the publics attention the previous year, she was a magnet for the kind of superlatives music critics love to create. In an interview for the Source, Adario Strange described his subject as a delicate ghetto-princess songstress, the flower of the ghetto, and the real momma of hip-hop R&B. In his Washington Post review of Bliges second album, Geoffrey Himes called her the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation. But more than anything else, the music media has crowned her the Queen of Hip Hop Soul.

Part of the fuel for Bliges rocket to hip-hop stardom was her street cred. Her youth in one of New Yorks poorer neighborhoodsthe Slowbam Projects in Yonkers, where she was born on November 1 in the early 1970sprovided her with the credentials demanded by audiences who also grew up on city streets. Blige described the setting for Essences Deborah Gregory, recalling that there was always some sh** going on. Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped. Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down. The family, including Bliges older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Coras earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. My mother made me strong, Blige told Strange. Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman.

Bliges environment also provided the sound and encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Bliges ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sisters in the choir at the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us, Blige told Emil Wilbekin in a Vibe interview. She expanded on the experience for Essence s Gregory, remembering that she felt so much better going to church every Sunday, just being there, testifying and just being kids. It was a lot of fun. By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Before she dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, around 1987, she also participated in shows there.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige didnt expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position, helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. Her

For the Record

Born Mary Jane Blige on November 1, c. 1971, in Yonkers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician.

Sang with mother and sister in House of Prayer Pentecostal Church choir; appeared in local and school talent shows; worked various part-time jobs in late teens; signed by Uptown Records, released debut album, Whats the 411?, 1992; headline tours in 1998 and 2000; released No More Drama, 2001.

Awards: Soul Train Music Awards, 1993, 2000; New York Music Award; Grammy Award, Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (with Method Man), 1996; American Music Award, Favorite Soul/R&B Album for Share My World, 1998; Soul Train Lady of Soul awards, 1997, 1998, 2000.

Addresses: Record company Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404; MCA Records, 2220 Colorado Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website Mary J. Blige Official Website: http://www.mjblige.com.

first demo tape was, in fact, just a karaoke style recording made one night at a mall to entertain friends when she was 17. Before too long, however, the cover of Anita Bakers Rapture found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records: Bliges mother gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B vocalist Jeff Redd. Redd passed it on, enthusiastically, to Harrell. On Harrells initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptowns growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean Puffy Combs became the young singers mentor when the company began preparing her album.

Whats the 411? Spurred R&B Revival

In 1992 Whats the 411? introduced Bliges voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single Real Love, 411 reached double-platinum status after it sold over two million copies in a short time. Its appeal crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the top ten on Billboards pop chart. When Havelock Nelson gave the album an A in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon know; that Blige was the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk and that she conquers everything she tackles. He concluded that the album was one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date.

Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill. She became known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. Mary has become an icon of todays young Black nation, wrote the Source s Strange, representing the feminine yet strong-willed woman that many young girls hope to be, and the sexy yet not too cute for a ruffneck girlfriend that many brothers from the hood long for. In April of 1993, Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women. Strange dubbed her the first true feminine hero of R&B lovin ghetto residents. The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, I think Im creating a style for womena more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now. As Strange noted, the impact of 411 showed up soon on other performers, as baseball caps and boots suddenly became in vogue for female singers and divas everywhere demanded hip-hop tracks to back up their cubic zirconian efforts.

The applause was dimmed, however, by some bad publicity. It seemed to begin at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but in standard street gear: jeans and a shirt. The public expressed its disapproval instantly: as the Sources Strange reported, radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans. That incident occurred in the midst of other less public reports of bad behavior. Wilbekin recounted the history for Vibe, recalling that the stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism are endless. Mary was eight hours late to one magazine photo shoot, and threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television. Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it the crowd booed her off the stage.

It was only after the release of her second album that Blige was able to reflect on what might have fed her behavior at the time. She speculated that the attention had disconcerted her; that she hadnt been prepared, socially or professionally, for the kind of intense spotlight music celebrity creates. Harrell suggested to Wilbekin in Vibe that the whole experience was overwhelming for her. She wasnt ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion. Friend and manager Steve Lucas told Gregory that Mary got an undeserved bad rap because of what was going on around herthe confusion, the lack of organization. When you communicate honestly with Mary, there arent any problems. Shes willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to be successful. Shes basically a very sweet, humble person. The difficulty of the situation was exacerbated, Blige admitted to Rolling Stone s Hochman, by her basic shyness. Im just not a very open person, she told him. The most open I am is when I sing. Ive always been kind of shy. On a more concrete note, she also felt there were problems with her management, which she changed before recording the second album. Combs moved out of Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, where Blige took her management business while still recording with Uptown.

Learned to Manage Fame

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of public reputation. She worked extensively with the companys president, Angelo Ellerbee, whom she later credited with not just polishing her interview style, but changing her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin in Vibe that Ellerbee gave me a totally new kind of life. There was a time when I wouldnt read nothin, but Ellerbee sparked her interest in books for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God.

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers: My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboards R&B album chart. One note sounded very consistently from the first album to the second, and that was Bliges renown for being real. As Combs explained to Strange in the Source, Blige represents all the honeys in the urban communities in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago and Los Angeles thats growing up and going through regular every day things that are a part of hip-hop culture. This album shows the real of just how strong Black women have become.

Major Voice of Her Generation

Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Bliges new take on R&B on My Life; Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas, he remarked in the Washington Times, but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations that have sugarcoated romantic crooners from Dinah Washington to Anita Baker are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation. J.D. Considine, writing for Baltimores Evening Sun, greeted the album by noting that Blige has more than surpassed expectations and argued that as good as the grooves are, its her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs. Similarly, Himes declared her a major voice of her generation.

Bliges subsequent albums, Share My World in 1997, The Tour in 1998, Mary in 1999, and No More Drama in 2001, brought new recognition for the steadfast singer. She earned a Grammy Award in 1996 for her rap performance with Method Man followed by nominations in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2001. She received Soul Train Lady of Soul awards for two years in successionin 1997 and 1998and in 1998 received an American Music Award. Additionally, she toured as a headline act in 1998 and again in 2000.

As the 1990s drew to a close, Bliges self-generated strength reflected clearly in her subsequent projects, and she developed a new sense of social commitment, melding her career with worthy causes that concerned her deeply. The proceeds from her 2000 tour, The Mary Show, went to benefit One Hundred Black Men, Inc., of New York City, and in her capacity as spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics Viva Glam III line, she was invited to appear at the United Nations General Assembly Hall for the Race Against Poverty Awards in 2000 and 2001.

Selected discography

Whats the 411? (includes Real Love and You Remind Me), Uptown/MCA, 1992.

My Life (includes Im Going Down and You Bring Me Joy), Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Share My World (includes Everything, Not Goin Cry and I Can Love You), MCA, 1997.

The Tour (live), MCA, 1998.

Mary, MCA, 1999.

No More Drama (includes Family Affair), MCA, 2001.

Ballads (includes Overjoyed; compilation), Polygram, 2001.

Sources

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995; April 2001.

Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

Jet, July 3, 2000; October 16, 2000; December 25, 2000.

People, December 5, 1994.

PR Newswire, October 12, 2000; February 12, 2001; March 13, 2001; April 10, 2001.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Uptown Records publicity materials.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

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Blige, Mary J.

Mary J. Blige

Singer, songwriter

Early Musical Influences

Hip-hop Role Model Stumbled

Redefined with My Life

Selected discography

Sources

In a 1993 article in Stereo Review, Ron Givens wrote, Mary J. Blige has been called the inventor of New Jill Swing. When the vocalist came to the publics attention the previous year, she became a magnet for the kind of superlatives music critics love to create. In an interview for the Source, Adario Strange described his subject as a delicate ghetto-princess songstress, the flower of the ghetto, and the real momma of hip-hop R&B. In his Washington Post review of Bliges second album, Geoffrey Himes called her the premier soul diva of the hip-hop generation. But more than anything else, the music media has crowned her the Queen of Hip Hop Soul.

Part of the fuel for Bliges rocket to hip-hop stardom was her street cred. Her youth in one of New York Citys poor neighborhoods the Slowbam Projects in Yonkers, where she was born on January 11, 1971 provided her with the credentials demanded by audiences who also grew up on city streets. Blige described the setting for Essences Deborah Gregory, recalling that there was always some sh** going on. Every day I would be getting into fights over whatever. You always had to prove yourself to keep from getting robbed or jumped. Growing up in the projects is like living in a barrel of crabs. If you try to get out, one of the other crabs tries to pull you down. The family, including Bliges older sister and two younger brothers, subsisted on her mother Coras earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s. My mother made me strong, Blige told Strange. Watching my mother struggle to raise us and feed us made me want to be a stronger woman.

Early Musical Influences

Bliges environment also provided the sound and encouragement that first shaped her musical identity. A professional jazz musician, her father left his mark on Bliges ability to harmonize during the brief time he was present. Block parties in the Bronx taught her the rhythms and sampling styles created by the early hip-hop deejays. At home, her mother played a steady stream of R&B, soul, and funk, including Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight. Blige sang regularly with her mother and sisters in the choir at the House of Prayer Pentecostal Church, honing vocal skills and imbibing gospel. We used to go to church all night. Everybody would be real good to us, Blige told Emil Wilbekin in a Vibe interview. She expanded on the experience for Essences Gregory, remembering that she felt so much better going to church every Sunday, just being there, testifying and just being kids. It was a lot of fun. By the time Blige was a teenager, she had solo spots in the choir and she made the rounds of local talent shows. Before she dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, around 1987, she also participated in shows there.

While she enjoyed singing, Blige didnt expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position,

For the Record

Born Mary Jane Blige on January 11, 1971, in Yonkers, NY; daughter of Cora (a nurse) and a jazz musician.

Sang with mother and sister in House of Prayer Pentecostal Church choir; appeared in local and school talent shows; worked various part-time jobs in late teens. Signed by Uptown Records and released debut album, Whats the 411?, 1992.

Awards: Soul Train Music Award, 1993; New York Music Award; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award; doubleplatinum album award for Whats the 411?

Addresses: Record company Uptown Records, 729 Seventh Avenue, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

helped bring in money with several part-time jobs. Her first demo tape was, in fact, just a karaoke style recording made one night at a mall to entertain friends when she was 17. Before too long, however, the cover of Anita Bakers Rapture found its way to Andre Harrell, an executive with Uptown Records: Bliges mother gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to R&B vocalist Jeff Redd. Redd passed it on, enthusiastically, to Harrell. On Harrells initiative, Blige was brought onto Uptowns growing roster of young R&B talents. Sean Puffy Combs became the young singers mentor when the company began preparing her album.

In 1992 Whats the 411? introduced Bliges voice to audiences with a growing interest in the New Jack Swing take on R&B. The album not only fit neatly into that R&B revival, but also began to define it. Driven primarily by the single Real Love, 411 reached double-platinum status after it sold over two million copies in a short time. Its appeal crossed over from the R&B charts and entered the Top Ten on Billboards pop chart. When Havelock Nelson gave the album an A in his Entertainment Weekly review in August of 1992, he began with the news everyone would soon knowthat Blige was the first diva to deliver frisky, fly-girl funk and that she conquers everything she tackles. He concluded that the album was one of the most accomplished fusions of soul values and hip-hop to date.

Nelson described, in particular, how Blige took the then male-defined domain of New Jack Swing and remade it in her own image, kicking off the rage for New Jill.

She became known as the initiator of a new female incarnation of hip-hop. Mary has become an icon of todays young Black nation, wrote the Sources Strange, representing the feminine yet strong-willed woman that many young girls hope to be, and the sexy yet not too cute for a ruffneck girlfriend that many brothers from the hood long for. In April of 1993, Rolling Stone reviewer Steve Hochman noted that Blige had become the role model for the new breed of strong hip-hop women. Strange dubbed her the first true feminine hero of R&B lovin ghetto residents. The singer commented on the phenomenon herself, telling Hochman, I think Im creating a style for women a more feminine version of the way a lot of hip-hop guys dress now. As Strange noted, the impact of 411 showed up soon on other performers, as baseball caps and boots suddenly became in vogue for female singers and divas everywhere demanded hip-hop tracks to back up their cubic zirconian efforts.

Hip-hop Role Model Stumbled

The applause was marred, however, by some bad publicity. It seemed to begin at the 1993 Soul Train Music Awards, where Blige accepted her award not in the expected glittering evening gown, but in standard street gear: jeans and a shirt. The public expressed its disapproval instantly: as the Sources Strange reported, radio stations everywhere were flooded with phone calls from disgruntled fans. That incident occurred in the midst of other, less public, reports of bad behavior. Wilbekin recounted the history for Vibe, recalling that the stories of tardiness, cancellations, and general lack of professionalism are endless. Mary was eight hours late to one magazine photo shoot, and threw a fit and walked out of at least one more. She conducted interviews where she did as much drinking as talking and acted like a zombie on national television. Then there was the concert in London where she was so out of it the crowd booed her off the stage.

It was only after the release of her second album that Blige was able to reflect on what might have fed her behavior at the time. She speculated that the attention had disconcerted her that she hadnt been prepared, socially or professionally, for the kind of intense spotlight music celebrity creates. Harrell suggested to Wilbekin in Vibe that the whole experience was overwhelming for her. She wasnt ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion. Friend and manager Steve Lucas told Gregory that Mary got an undeserved bad rap because of what was going on around herthe confusion, the lack of organization. When you communicate honestly with Mary, there arent any problems. Shes willing to cooperate and do whatever it takes to be successful. Shes basically a very sweet, humble person. The difficulty of the situation was exacerbated, Blige admitted to Rolling Stone s Hochman, by her basic shyness. Im just not a very open person, she told him. The most open I am is when I sing. Ive always been kind of shy. On a more concrete note, she also felt there were problems with her management, which she changed before recording the second album. Combs moved out of Uptown and in 1993 started his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, where Blige took her management business while still recording with Uptown.

Blige also pursued practical measures to prepare herself for the fresh onslaught of publicity that would accompany the second album: she enrolled with a public relations firm, Double XXposure, that trained artists to deal with the demands of public reputation. She worked extensively with the companys president, Angelo Ellerbee, whom she later credited with not just polishing her interview style, but changing her life more broadly. She told Wilbekin in Vibe that Ellerbee gave me a totally new kind of life. There was a time when I wouldnt read nothin, but Ellerbee sparked her interest in books her for the first time, introducing her, for example, to a novel by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Redefined with My Life

When Uptown released My Life in 1994, it marked many changes for Blige, including the personal refining that turned around her public image. The vocalist also contributed lyrics for most of the songs; she had been writing before the debut album, but had little confidence in her skill as a lyricist. The sound of the music shifted also, due in part to the use of live horns and strings in place of the standard sampling, moving Blige deeper into the fusion of hip-hop and soul. Ultimately, all of the changes added up successfully for Blige and her producers: My Life debuted in December in the top position on Billboards R&B album chart.

Geoffrey Himes, among others, paid particular tribute to Bliges new take on R&B; Blige may be a gospel-trained siren like older soul divas, he remarked in the Washington Times, but these arrangements sound like no record ever made by Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Patti LaBelle. All the gooey orchestrations that have sugarcoated romantic crooners from Dinah Washington to Anita Baker are gone, leaving a skeletal rhythm track and a spectacular voice freed from all superfluous sentiment and ornamentation. J.D. Considine, writing for Baltimores Evening Sun, greeted the album by noting that Blige has more than surpassed expectations and argued that as good as the grooves are, its her vocal work that ultimately drives these songs. Similarly, Himes declared her a major voice of her generation.

One note sounded very consistently from the first album to the second, and that was Bliges renown for being real. As Combs explained to Strange in the Source, Blige represents all the honeys in the urban communities in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago and Los Angeles thats growing up and going through regular every day things that are a part of hip-hop culture. This album shows the real of just how strong Black women have become.

Selected discography

Whats the 411? (includes Real Love), Uptown/MCA, 1992.

Whats the 411? Remix, Uptown/MCA, 1993.

My Life, Uptown/MCA, 1994.

Sources

Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1994.

Billboard, January 16, 1993.

Boston Globe, December 15, 1994.

Entertainment Weekly, August 7, 1992; November 20, 1992; December 3, 1993; November 25, 1994.

Essence, March 1995.

Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), December 2, 1994.

People, December 5, 1994.

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1993.

Source, January 1995.

Stereo Review, April 1993.

Vibe, February 1995.

Washington Post, November 27, 1994.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from Uptown Records publicity materials.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

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Blige, Mary J.

MARY J. BLIGE

Born: Bronx, New York, 11 January 1971

Genre: R&B, Hip-Hop

Best-selling album since 1990: Share My World (1997)

Hit songs since 1990: "You Remind Me," "Real Love," "Not Gon' Cry"


During the 1990s Mary J. Blige helped usher rhythm and blues music into the hip-hop era, becoming known as "The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." Blige's longevity was due in part to producers who crafted complex, distinctive, and likable rhythms behind her vocals, but a more important key to her success was the personal artistic current that ran through her work. While her contemporaries such as Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton largely confined their work to love ballads, Blige used music to explore the travails of her life, bringing a new degree of honesty to rhythm and blues. As a result, she became an idol to young African-American women who identified with her toughness, pain, and perseverance. The opening line of "Where I've Been" (2001) sums up her appeal: "To all the youth in the world," she says, "the thing nobody understands; well, I understand." With each album Blige grew more assured, creating music that is all the more enjoyable for its depth of feeling.


Early Years

Although she spent her summers living with family in Savannah, Georgia, Blige was raised in the Schlobohm Gardens housing projects in Yonkers, New York. Growing up in a neighborhood full of drugs and crime, Blige fell in with a rough crowd and dropped out of high school during her junior year. In interviews she later alluded to the troubles that plagued her during these years. Discussing her childhood with Rolling Stone in 2001, she said, "In the ghetto, I didn't want to be nothing. I didn't want to be anything . . . when you're younger, you like the ignorance. You love the ignorance."

Despite her troubles, Blige was exposed to the positive influence of music through her father, a performer who lived in Michigan but visited her occasionally.



While still a teenager, Blige recorded herself at a local mall singing a karaoke version of "Rapture," a hit song by the pop-soul vocalist Anita Baker. The tape eventually found its way to Andre Harrell of Uptown Records, who enlisted Blige to sing backup vocals for the artists on his label. In 1991 Blige began working with producer Sean "Puffy" Combs, who spearheaded the production of her first album, What's the 411? (1992). The album, a success on the pop and rhythm and blues charts, was an important step in bringing hip-hop and rap into the mainstream. With its catchy riffs, sturdy beats, and melodic songs, What's the 411? helped define rhythm and blues in the 1990s, paving the way for later groups such as TLC and Destiny's Child. "Real Love," the album's most popular single, was an infectious dance number that juxtaposed Blige's girlish, somewhat unsteady vocals against a bouncy rhythm track. Distinguished by a pounding piano part, "Real Love" was instantly recognizable on the radio, where it received extensive play during the early years of the decade.


Rhythm and Blues Stardom

Blige's third album, Share My World (1997), marked a turning point in her career; it features a slicker, more polished sound than previous efforts and places an increased emphasis on her vocals. Designed for mainstream appeal, Share My World became Blige's most successful album to date, debuting at number one on the pop charts. The album's high point is "Not Gon' Cry," a ballad written by producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds that was also featured on the soundtrack to the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale. On "Not Gon' Cry" Blige uses the dark, bluesy contours of her voice to tell the story of a fallen relationship. Sounding less youthful and winsome than on previous recordings, she brings a chilling matter-of-factness to such lines as "Eleven years I've sacrificed, and you can leave me at the drop of a dime." The song demonstrates the specific, detailed way in which Blige probes her emotions, a skill that overcomes any vocal shortcomings. Comparing her to the 1960s "Queen of Soul," the Baltimore City Paper asserted in 1999, "[Blige's] raspy voice is weak and it often cracks. . . . Having said that, she's also her generation's Aretha Franklin. . . . You swear you know Blige, and you feel what she's singing."

A New Maturity

With Mary (1999), Blige took the mature style developed on Share My World and pushed it further, creating a sophisticated, assured album that showed how much she had developed as a singer and artist. On the album's cover, Blige is shown in profile, the scar under her eye prominently displayed. With the music Blige seems to be stating, "this is who I am," as she delves into a wide range of influences and styles. "All That I Can Say," produced by fellow hip-hop performer Lauryn Hill, features a complex melody and multiple key changes that Blige navigates with ease. On "Deep Inside," featuring pop singer Elton John on piano, Blige opens up about the difficulties of being a star. "The problem is," she sings, "for many years I've lived my life publicly / So it's hard for me to find a man I trust." One of the album's most potent songs is the dark, moody "Time." Backed with a funky rhythm track, Blige rails against narrow-mindedness: "People nowadays so shady / Now what is wrong with them / Something cast a spell up on their minds / And they always wanna condemn." Overall, Mary gives the impression of an artist secure and comfortable with her talents, intelligent enough to deliver music both danceable and thought-provoking.

Blige's maturity is fully evident on her 2001 album, No More Drama. On one level the album works as solid party music, but it also provides a framework for presenting Blige's emotional and spiritual orientation, taking listeners into the far reaches of her psyche. On "PMS," for example, she is both penetrating and funny: "My lower back is aching/ and my clothes don't fit." On the autobiographical "Where I've Been," one of her most uplifting songs, Blige relates how she has turned trauma into triumph: "At the age of seven years old / A strange thing happened to me. . . . And I've got the mark to show / And it became a thing of beauty." The album's biggest hit, "Family Affair," is a dance number that benefits from a tight, dense groove supplied by the producer, Dr. Dre. The playful lyrics, written by Blige and her own family members, coin new terms to emphasize unity: "Don't need no hateration, holleration." The title track, "No More Drama," which incorporates the theme song to the soap opera The Young and the Restless, reflects Blige's upbeat state of mind and new confidence: "It feels so good / When you let go / Of all the drama in your life / Now you're free from all the pain." Extending her positive message beyond her music, Blige became a spokesperson for AIDS awareness and the rights of battered women and children.

A major trendsetter in contemporary R&B, Mary J. Blige remained on top at the start of a new millennium by constantly updating her image, message, and style. Exploring her life's experiences with honesty and humor, she created music that challenges as it entertains.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

What's the 411? (MCA, 1992); My Life (MCA, 1994); Share My World (MCA, 1997); Mary (MCA, 1999); No More Drama (MCA, 2001).

WEBSITES:

www.mjblige.com; www.maryjbligeonline.com.

david freeland

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