Mary J Blige: Hail Mary, Queen of soul

Mary J Blige's new album shows how far she has come as an artist and as a woman, she tells Matilda Egere-Cooper

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The Independent Culture

There are six things Mary J Blige wants for Christmas. "Love, love, love and joy, joy, joy. We don't want any negative energy!" She chuckles. If you've followed Blige for long enough, you'll know she owns this mantra – and you can't blame her. The 42-year-old might have declared a war on drama back in 2001 ("No more drama in my life, no one's gonna make me hurt again!" or so the lyric goes), but she'll be the first to admit that being one of the most famous singers on the planet hasn't meant she always wins the battles. In the past couple of years, she's been hit with lawsuits against her women's charity, tax woes and the challenge of staying relevant in an industry that occasionally tries to sideline the pioneers – but it's her optimism that continues to see her through. "I understand clearly that life is good, but trials and tribulations must come," she says. "How I navigate through that is what is reflected to people."

She's currently making the journey look easy. The nine-time Grammy Award winning singer is looking typically chic, wearing flawless make-up, a dog-tooth jumper matched with skin-tight jeans, knee-high stiletto boots and blonde bob whipped to perfection. The results of going teetotal and stepping up the fitness are apparent too – her toned body could mock a woman half her age. "I want to feel super," she says of her recent health kick, which was inspired by the death of Whitney Houston. "When I have my down days I want to be able to say gosh, 'I EARNED this! I didn't go and buy it; I bust my behind for it!'"

In the early part of her career, Blige had a reputation of being a tough cookie to crack in interviews, giving brief poker-faced responses and deflecting any questions that ventured too much into her personal business. She still keeps those cards close to her chest, mind you, but in conversation she's polite, warm, wise and refreshingly normal. "I love normal," she says, on the subject of her Christmas plans. "I'm just a regular person. I like being home, I like good food. My Christmas holidays, it has to be the same. There has to be a sweet potato pie." Our varied chat also covers acting (she wants to do more), overly sexy female artists à la twerkaholic Miley ("Everybody has to learn, it's trial and error. You're gonna go through a lot, living like that") and racial discrimination towards black women in light of Oprah's recent run-in in Switzerland. "It's real…," she admits, "but what we have to do for ourselves is believe that we deserve more than what we're getting. Period."

When we get down to business, the main topic is her 11th album, A Mary Christmas. It's a holiday record which is a career first, but a fitting declaration of the positive vibes she likes to spread. Surprisingly, there's only a whiff of soul beyond her signature vocals, which might be the doing of David Foster – the 16 Grammy Award-winning producer who arranged the album and has been a hit-maker for some of the biggest artists in the world such as Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. So if you're a fan of the party anthems that have been Blige's ticket into the top 40 these past few years, this album won't get you percolating. But what it does offer is blissful, traditional renditions of festive favourites such as "Little Drummer Boy" and "The First Noel" in a way you might not have expected from the queen of hip-hop soul. "It's me in a whole other light," she agrees. "People never knew that I could do this. People didn't know I could swing… but I'm a jazz musician at heart. I listened to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker all of my life, you know what I mean? So I can do a lot of things."

Impressively, she's also singing in French and Spanish and offers duets with the likes of Chris Botti, Jessie J, The Clark Sisters, Marc Anthony and the mighty Barbra Streisand, who rarely features on other people's albums. But that's just how far Blige has come in her career – and from this album you get a sense that she's now evolved into an artist where she can consistently roll with the heavy hitters and venture into broader territory when the opportunities arise. The truth is, the tragic narratives of her early albums have arguably lost their relevance to her life as the victorious spirit of her latter work (2003's Love & Life, 2005's The Breakthrough, 2007's Growing Pains and 2009's Stronger with Each Tear) come from a woman who's a wife, step mother and philanthropist who simply hasn't got the time to sing "woe is me" like she did her in twenties. But she appreciates those unmistakable stories and jams are what got her into the industry in the first place.

Born in 1971, she grew up with her mum and her older sister in a rough area of Yonkers, New York, enduring a troubled childhood riddled with domestic violence, sexual abuse and drugs. She found solace in church and music – but it took four years for her demo tape to get into the hands of Uptown Records CEO Andre Harrell. He signed her in 1992 and with mentoring from Sean P Diddy Combs, her debut What's the 411? was an instant success, bridging hip hop and soul.

But as she went on to release the critically acclaimed follow-ups My Life in 1994, and Share My World in 1997, she was falling into the celebrity traps of cocaine and alcohol abuse before her life turned around after meeting her husband Kendu Issacs in 2003. "I love the fact that I survived a tumultuous past," she says. "I love the fact that I'm married and I never thought I'd ever get married. Ever." Eleven years on, she's determined to keep letting the good times roll (without the booze, of course), and even spreading a bit of Christmas cheer while she's at it. "I think we're gonna close the book on the My Lifes," she says, in reference to her 1994 album and the 2011 follow-up. "We're gonna start a book of triumph, of perseverance, of tenacity, of what has me here right now. And that's not being a weakling; it's being a very, very strong person who is not afraid to be who I am."

'A Mary Christmas' is out now on Dekken Records