Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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MARY J. BLIGE: Just Fine


Street date; New York, 1992… The soundscape and face of female R&B music is undergoing radical change.

As the traditional sophisticated divas take an enforced backseat, a new wave of street-savvy homegirls are bursting forth in their Timberlands, jeans and baseball caps; meshing uncut Nineties street beats with soulful song. The main catalyst for the new-B-girl climate is the release of 'What`s The 411?' - the groundbreaking debut album from a shy yet streetwise 20-year-old hailing from the Yonkers projects called Mary J. Blige. With its string of US Top Ten singles going on to propel said album to Double-Platinum sales, Mary instantly becomes crowned America`s undisputed `Queen of Hip Hop Soul`.

Dateline: London 2008… Nine albums, forty million sales and six Grammy Award wins later, and the confident, globally-acclaimed Mary J. Blige of today - a bona fide world-class diva - seems a world away from the introverted ghetto girl of 16 years ago… Back then Mary had secured her first record deal with Andre Harrell`s Uptown label (whose roster included Jodeci, Heavy D & The Boyz and The Notorious BIG) after recording a version of Anita Baker`s 'Caught Up In The Rapture' on a karaoke machine in an upstate New York shopping mall. With her father passing on the tape to a workmate at the General Motors car plant, it eventually surfaced in the hands of Harrell. Impressed with the demo`s unique street-yet-soulful qualities, he immediately put Mary in the studio to contribute vocals to labelmate Father MC`s 1991 album `Father`s Day`. Blige`s own historic debut (the aforementioned `What`s The 411?`) surfaced just 12 months later - its musical direction overseen by Uptown`s then-high-profile A&R man Sean `Puffy` Combs.

Today, in contrast, Queen Mary`s latest trip to the UK coincides with the release of her eighth studio album `Growing Pains`. The follow-up to 2005`s, record-breaking, multi-award-winning set `The Breakthrough`, it arguably finds her generally in more upbeat, assertive form than ever. As she reacquaints herself with `Blues & Soul` for a typically-forthright and particularly revealing chat.

Kicking off her new album with the uptempo single 'Just Fine:'
“Everyone would have expected me to put out a ballad. But at this point in my career - where in my personal life things are a lot better than they were - I felt it would be like a slap in the face to God and my fans to just not sing about the great times I`m going through. So 'Just Fine' is about really celebrating the good days. The fact I now have days when I can finally look in the mirror, like what I see, and not let anybody take my joy and peace away from me.”

Titling her eighth album 'Growing Pains'

“I started writing this record right after that whole gigantic day I had at the Grammies last year (she won three). So it was important to me to get across to my fans that whole feeling I was going through of `How do I sustain this breakthrough? How do I stay in this frame of mind? How do I continue to remind myself I`m in a better place?`… And the only way to continue to stay in that place is to GROW! I believe the majority of people out there, if something uncomfortable is going on in their lives, are forced to either go back to where they were, or to GROW - and that that tension is called PAIN. So the light, happy songs on the album are celebrating my growth. While the less poppy, darker tracks represent the places I`m forced to grow out of. So in that way the title represents the growth, as well as the understanding that - in order for anything to develop - it has to have some kinda tension behind it.”

Specific ways the title is reflected in the record`s music and lyrics

“Musically, on tracks like `Work That` - which is a really heavy, back-in-the-day-type New York record - and `Just Fine`, I wanted people to just have a good time and dance. While, on the records that are a little slower, I wanted them to reflect where they are in their lives and what`s happening with them. Basically I`m showing people the BALANCE of life - that life is sometimes upbeat, sometimes kinda mellow, and sometimes downright sad. And that, even though the darker songs show I still have my insecurities, I`m definitely no longer coming from a place of self-pity. You know, I`m coming from a place of 'I wanna get BETTER!'. I`m basically saying 'Look, I don`t wanna be like this! So, whatever “this” is, I gotta get out of it!`!”

Her musical collaborators on 'Growing Pains

“I chose `Tricky` Stewart and The Dream to produce and co-write on some of the tracks, based purely on the `Umbrella` record they did for Rihanna - which I thought was the most incredible record I`d heard in a very long time. As far as guest stars go, it was a no-brainer that a track like `Grown Woman` needed a rapper on it to make it even more exciting. So, with me having respected Ludacris for his whole career, he was definitely my first choice - while Eve was perfect for `Mirror`. To me it`s never a case of getting a rapper on board purely for the sake of getting a rapper. I only use them when they`re necessary. Then singing-wise, with Usher being one of the greatest vocalists of our time - a truly, truly talented young man - for me to duet with him on `Shake Down` was like The Queen getting together with The King.”

The influence hip hop still has on Mary`s music

“Hip hop is not ALL of what I`m about, but it is definitely the culture that I grew up in. So it still represents so much of what Mary is. Whether it`s in my hand expressions, the things I say, or in my singing itself. Like if a rapper was to rap and he was constantly on the beat? That`s the way I SING! And, when you add the soul and jazz that`s been embedded in me from an early age, you get the Queen of hip hop-soul! I mean, a lot of my appeal to the rap crowd comes from the WAY I grew up and WHERE I grew up, period. A lotta people in hip hop grew up in that same environment and, in order to feel what we feel, you have to have LIVED it. It`s not something you can just explain.”

The state of hip hop today

“Well, there is a serious drought happening. Basically because, once the record company gets hold of one thing that they don`t have to pay that much money for, they make 20 of `em! So today there`s like 20 videos that look exactly the same, and there`s one long song that`s like EVERY hip hop artist`s song! Basically it`s a case of `This is working, so we`re gonna just go with it!`! Whereas back in the day everyone had something different. A Tribe Called Quest didn`t look or sound like Big Daddy Kane; Rakim didn`t look or sound like KRS-One; LL Cool J looked like NO-ONE... I mean, now the companies are like `Let`s just throw these dudes some money that aren`t asking for much. They just wanna sing their little song`... And to me hip hop don`t even SOUND like hip hop no more! It sounds like `WHAT THE HECK?`!”

The reasons why hip hop is still so male-dominated

“To me the fact there are barely any women still doing hip hop is crazy. I guess, because it`s always been a male-dominated business, that`s the way people want it to stay. And it WILL stay that way till someone really, really excellent comes along and is able to hold her own in a way where she`s gonna be taken seriously. I think a lotta women right now have the wrong idea of what hip hop is about. To me hip hop is about what Queen Latifah and MC Lyte used to say, and how they looked. You know, they wore CLOTHES - and it wasn`t all about the sex! So many new female rappers today seem to think they gotta get the money quick, and the way to do it is by sleeping with the right people and by dissing and bashing other artists. Whereas the truth is that in a business like this you gotta really have something to say and you gotta be strong enough to hold your ground and to respect yourself.”

Mary`s own rap alter-ego Brook Lynn, “guests” on her new album

“She`s a rapper, and she represents a part of Mary that a lot people don`t wanna see! So we use her to say what Mary can`t say! You know, being a woman in the hip hop world you can pretty much say what you WANT! But that`s basically all she is - I`m not intending to give Brook Lynn a deal, or make Brook Lynn album!”

Whether R&B is in as bad a state as hip hop right now

“Well, I did think that at one time. But then more recently I feel people like Amy Winehouse have played a big part in saving it. Because her voice is what R&B LACKED! For a while R&B was everyone sounding and looking like everyone else. But then she came along with that voice from the Sixties and Mark Ronson`s beats that The Wu Tang Clan would rhyme on - that`s how hardcore, gritty and hot they are - and everybody suddenly remembered what R&B always used to be about! Then of course you also have Alicia Keys, who brings all her instruments along like Prince; you have me still doing what I`M doing, reaching out to people with the real singing; you have Beyonce bringing back the real entertainment that hadn`t been seen since Janet Jackson was at her prime... So yeah, in R&B right now we still got some good things. It may be less than 20 significant artists overall, but it`s still enough people to inspire MORE people.”

Mary`s growing up in the `Slow Bomb` projects of Yonkers NY

“Growing up I heard a lotta Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, a lotta jazz, a lotta gospel... While the hip hop side comes from when I used to hang out at every club every weekend and at all the block parties in the summertime. There`d be nothing but hip hop going on all night, and then rappers like KRS-One and Heavy D would also come to our school to talk. There was a lotta hip hop embedded in our roots and, like I said, to me it`s very important still `cause it`s always been the base of my music. It`s provided the beats that I`ve put my music on.”

Her wayward early years as a difficult young artist

“So much happened back then that I just wasn`t prepared for. There`s a lot of stuff I went through that I never want to go through again. That`s why, over the years, I`ve learnt to just be quiet in certain situations. I`ve learnt, for example, that cussing out your record company is a no-no that you don`t ever do. If you`re cussing out the president of the label and saying `F-you`, he`ll say `F- you` back but in a more damaging way! It`s like you`ll constantly see him throughout your CAREER saying `F-you`! But, having said that, not all of it back then was my fault. If you had a journalist say to you `How does it feel to be black?`, you`d say `Kiss my ass` too! Some of that stuff I put up with from the media back then was just pure insults, straight-up! But it WAS my fault the way I didn`t show up for a lotta things. I feel that a lotta my trials back then came from just being disobedient and thinking I could do whatever I wanted.”

The reasons for her longevity in a notoriously-fickle industry

“I guess, at the end of the day, a lot of it is down to my ability to compliment and still not say anything negative about the people that were supposed to be my successors - the ones that everyone predicted would take my crown or take my spot! Because what you gotta realise is, once these people become artists by copying your image and your style, the fact is they now have some of your fans! So, if you begin to diss them, it`s possible they could go away with ALL your fans! So I was smart enough to know to never disrespect them in public. I mean, these weren`t nice people - they were comin` after ME! But I always felt it wasn`t my responsibility to try to hurt them. Instead, I`d think `You`ll get yours. But I`m not the one who has to give it to you!`! You know, you can`t let the industry turn you bitter. If you`re the best thing going in the business they`re gonna try to duplicate you 10 times! And, looking at it from another angle, the fact all these people are trying to imitate what you do is actually kinda flattering!”

The highs and lows of her career

"The lows were definitely the time I was recording the (2004 released) `My Life` album. It was pure death, total misery - with all the drugs and the alcohol I was doing at that time… And I guess the high point came when I finally said `Can`t DO this any more! I do not wanna live like this, but I sure don`t wanna DIE like this!`!”

The album 'Growing Pains' is out now through Matriarch Records/ Geffen

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