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

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 public's 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 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.

Part of the fuel for Blige's rocket to hip-hop stardom was her "street cred." Her 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 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."

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 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 didn't expect to make her living at it and, like most teenagers in her position, 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 Baker's "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 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," 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. 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."

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 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."

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 hadn't 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." Her basic shyness magnified the situation, 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 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 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 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. One note sounded very consistently from the first album to the second, and that was Blige's 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 that's 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 Blige's 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 Baltimore's Evening Sun, greeted the album by noting 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."

Blige's subsequent albums, Share My World in 1997, The Tour in 1998, Maryin 1999, and No More Drama in 2001, brought new recognition for the steadfast singer. She reunited with P. Diddy for Love & Life, in 2003; also that year she married music producer Kendu Isaacs.

She earned a Grammy Award in 1996 for her rap performance with Method Man followed by nominations in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2001. In February of 2004, she shared the Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals, for "Whenever I Say Your Name," with Sting. She received Soul Train Lady of Soul awards for two years in succession--in 1997 and 1998--and in 1998 received an American Music Award. Additionally, she toured as a headline act in 1998 and again in 2000.

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.

by Ondine E. Le Blanc

Mary J. Blige's Career

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, What's the 411?, 1992; headline tours in 1998 and 2000; released No More Drama, 2001.

Mary J. Blige's 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; Grammy award, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (with Sting), 2004.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 27, 2006: Blige won two BET awards, including video of the year for Be Without You, and best female R&B artist. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, June 30, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 9 years ago

U're just d best.I really like ur music alot.I refused 2 4get 911 whit wyclef jean.Keep it up.more grammy awards are stil come ur way.