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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace