Mary J Blige: Can't keep her down

Mary J Blige has gone from angry young hip-hopper to being the 21st-century Aretha Franklin. She talks to Russell Myrie
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The Independent Culture

With hindsight, it seems obvious that the hip-hop generation would produce a singer like Mary J Blige. Yet, as is the way with these things, no one saw her coming. 2006 marks 14 years since her debut album, What's The 411, changed soul music for ever. She is truly a pioneer. What's more, despite all her achievements thus far, she's not going anywhere anytime soon. Few will be surprised to see her match the longevity of Aretha Franklin.

Dressed in white jodhpurs and a matching jumper, complemented by large-rimmed beige sunglasses, earrings and knee-high boots, she seems completely at ease in her extremely hot Knightsbridge hotel room. The fact that it is so cold outside makes the heat that little bit harder to deal with. However, before long Mary herself decides that the room is too hot. Without being asked, she expresses concern and fetches some cold water for cooling down purposes.

That in itself illustrates who Mary has become as she releases The Breakthrough, her seventh studio album. There was a time when it would have been extremely hard to imagine her doing such a thing - her dislike of the press was no secret. But that was then. The new and improved Mary is laid-back and she exudes confidence.

The Breakthrough incorporates a little bit of everything that is good about Mary J Blige. Obviously, there are the very soulful songs. The album's first single, "Be Without You, You Are My Everything" (written and produced by Raphael Saadiq) and "Enough Cryin' " (helmed by Rodney Jerkins, the master of smoothed-out club R&B in the mid- to late Nineties) spring to mind. On the other hand there's her cover of U2's "One" featuring Bono. And there's Mary's mixtape version of The Game's "Hate It Or Love It". "MJB Da MVP" is a nostalgic look back through her years at the top of her game. The Jay-Z-featuring "Can't Hide From Love" can currently be heard in clubs (as well as car stereos) and "Can't Keep a Good Woman Down" is the latest "keep your head up" anthem for the millions of women who look to Mary to provide a musical silver lining.

The other thing about this record is that she obviously wants to draw more attention to her rapping skills. Anyone peeking through the album's credits as they give it a first listen may wonder why female emcee Brook - a name no one will recognise - gets to feature on the set alongside Jay-Z and Will.I.Am. If they fail to recognise her voice that is.

"All of the greatest rappers come from the East Coast, come from BK, come from Brooklyn. To me anyway, the majority of them do," Mary says. "I know you got Krs-One and them that come from the Bronx, but that also fits in with the B. I created the name Brook based on those ideas." There may be another reason why she's representing Brooklyn. One of Brook's ghostwriters hails from the borough that gave us Biggie Smalls and Mike Tyson. "Yeah, Jay-Z wrote the verse on 'Enough Cryin' '," she confirms.

"If that's what people want, I'm not gonna force anything down anyone's throats," she continues on whether or not we are going to be hearing more rhyming from the queen of hip-hop soul. She's rapped sporadically throughout her career but it would really be something if Mary dropped a mixtape to showcase her microphone prowess.

Jay-Z also played a part with other aspects of The Breakthrough. After influencing Destiny's Child to work with the 9th Wonder of North Carolina rap group Little Brother, he's now done the same with Ms Blige. "He did some stuff on Jay-Z's album, he did the 'Threat' record," she recalls. "That record is crazy and when I heard it I was like: 'OK, I need to work with 9th Wonder.'"

"Can't Keep a Good Woman Down", the song 9th Wonder produced, demonstrates how Mary has made the transition from someone who was just like her "troubled sisters" to someone who made it through and now wants to help. "As women, we go through a lot. In business and just being a woman at home raising the kids. I'm a woman that's been in contact with so many women through my music and I just wanted to let them know that at the end of the day 'you are a good woman'. I'm a good woman and I've been through hell and they can't keep me down. I do not want your kids to go through it and I do not want to see you go through it."

There are a few songs on the record that hint at her past troubles. "Baggage" and "Father In You" are two of them. "I'm speaking to my husband and I'm saying to him I grew up without a father and I need to be able to trust you. I need to be able to trust you won't hurt me. I need to trust that you will do what you say you're gonna do, and just be there for me. I'm not talking about controlling me or beating me or anything like that. I'm talking about love me in a way that I'm safe."

Her marriage to the producer Kendu Isaacs has definitely made a lasting difference and seems to be the reason for the change that came. She has "inherited" three kids through her two-year marriage, aged five, six and 19. But she hasn't fully succumbed to domesticity. Mary is unsure about children of her own. "My husband wants a kid from me but I'm still thinking about it," she says.

While she definitely feels that "married life is good, very good", she also notes that "it's a very hard job for people like me, who never had to come under any authority. I'm like: 'Umm humm, I need help with this one.' " That comment, as well as the aforementioned songs, are gentle reminders of the "old" Mary J Blige. The one who "was fresh out of the ghetto, fresh from everything that the projects taught me, everything the streets taught me". Every now and again that side of her will make itself known. Mary still does not take any mess. At the 2005 Vibe Awards she eloquently expressed her distaste at the way she felt her image had been tampered with on a recent cover and publicly told the editor that "we need to speak as women". This was during her acceptance speech for the Legend Award which the popular magazine bestowed upon her.

She describes her home of Yonkers, in uptown New York, as being "like any other 'hood. If you go to 155th, you'll see brick building projects. School street looks the same, brick buildings. My whole thing was hip-hop, that was my culture. The way I stood, talked, danced, walked. I was very violent, very angry and didn't know why. Very ignorant, I didn't have any clue. And I was sitting around. I was lucky to run into someone who could help me."

That someone was Andre Harrel, CEO of Uptown Records. After signing Mary, he let his A&R director, Sean "Puffy" Combs ( as he was then known), loose on her and before long a star was born. If you were into hip-hop in 1992, Mary J Blige was the only swingbeat singer whom you could admit to liking without being laughed at by your mates. Granted, Mary was preceded by acts such as Bell Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown who mixed R 'n' B with-hip hop (and Teddy Riley deserves an honourable mention for Guy as well as his work with Brown).

But Mary was different. It seemed a lot more natural when she featured rappers on her records, and rapped herself on the title track to What's The 411. As she used breakbeats and samples, it did not seem out of place when hip-hop DJs such as Kid Capri included her songs on their mixtapes. Hip-hop and R 'n' B were not comfortable bedfellows - there were still more than a few soul singers who belonged to the big-hair-and-shoulder-pads tradition. When Mary wore a matching Malcolm X hat and T-shirt in the video for "Real Love", it resonated with the hip-hop world because that's what rappers and kids into rap were wearing.

Her second album, 1994's My Life - pretty much an account of her brutal, fiery relationship with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci - proved that the triple-platinum success of What's The 411 was no fluke. She mixed her hip-hop swagger with a weary pain that recalled Billie Holiday. Those were the bad times. A year before, she was booed offstage at Hammersmith Apollo after only performing a few songs. During an interview with the former model Veronica Webb she offered to go outside with her for a fight. Then, against all odds, the rest of the Nineties saw her distance herself from that persona. Before 1997's Share My World, Mary cut her links with Puffy and signed with Uptown's parent company, MCA. Little things such as her collaboration with George Benson on "Seven Days", and the calmness of the "Everything" video hinted at a different Mary J Blige. At the end of the decade she worked with Eric Clapton and Elton John and duetted with George Michael.

"I had to realise that everybody's not always thinking negative like you think they're thinking," she says."You're the one thinking negative. So all of that went out of the window. Or it's working its way out the window and has been since the No More Drama album."

No More Drama was a turning point professionally and personally. "When I did the 'No More Drama' performance at the Grammys and I came to, everyone was standing up and I had the longest standing ovation. That was crazy 'cos I had never received anything like that before. It was people in that audience from... you name it, and they were standing up crying and shit. That was a heavy moment for me."

These days, she enjoys her position as the premier soul singer of our times a lot more. "It feels really good because I think if all this was given to me, I wouldn't know how to have the humility to receive it. There's been so much and there's so many people that are doing me and been doing me from the time I put out the My Life album. You know Puff was trying to put out a whole 'nother version of me which was Faith [Evans]. I've been going through this for years. And I look at it and I'm like: 'If there wasn't a chick every year coming out trying to be me, they probably would have forgot about me by now.' So I have to appreciate that. At one time I was like: 'What the fuck?' But I would never say anything about it."

A bit of Mary can be found in every relatively new female R 'n' B singer worth their salt (Keyshia Cole, Teedra Moses). Her position as the most important soul singer of our time becomes even stronger when it is considered that in terms of filthy lucre - the language best understood by the music business - Mary is at the apex of her career. In America, The Breakthrough debuted at number one, selling 727,000 copies in its first week, the best first-week sales of her career. That alone means that she's going to be making music for a while yet. If the next decade sees her changing even half as much as the past 10 years, then we're in for lots more brilliant autobiographical soul music. Amen to that.

'The Breakthrough' is out now on Universal

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