Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Mary J. Blige: Back in stride again

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige

Iconic contemporary soul/R&B songstress Mary J. Blige this month returns with her tenth studio album âMy Life II⦠The Journey Continues (Act 1)â. Which - titled as the sequel to her seminal 1994 sophomore LP âMy Lifeâ and recorded in both Los Angeles and New York - boasts production input from the likes of Jerry âWonderâ Duplessis, Danja, Rodney âDarkchildâ Jerkins and The Underdogs; while vocally featuring such guests as megastar R&B/pop songstress. Beyonce, in addition to chart-topping male rappers like Busta Rhymes, Nas, Drake and Rick Ross.

Interestingly, to trace the beginning of Bronx-born Maryâs significant impact on contemporary music (for which she has prestigiously received the World Music Legends Award) we need to turn back the clocks toâ¦

⦠SUMMER 1992, NEW YORK - a time and place where the soundscape and face of female R&B music is undergoing radical change. As the traditional sophisticated divas are suddenly taking an enforced backseat while 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 being the release of âWhatâs The 411?â - the groundbreaking debut album from a shy-yet-streetwise 21-year-old hailing from the cityâs Yonkers projects called Mary J. Blige. Indeed, with its string of US Top Ten singles going on to propel said album to Triple-Platinum sales, Mary instantly becomes crowned Americaâs undisputed âQueen of Hip Hop Soulââ¦

⦠DATELINE: AUTUMN 2011, LONDON⦠Nine studio albums, 50 million album sales, 15 million singles sales and nine 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 19 years ago - a time when Mary had secured her first record deal with Andre Harrellâs Uptown label (whose roster at the time included Jodeci, Heavy D & The Boyz and The Notorious B.I.G.) after recording a version of Anita Bakerâs âCaught Up In The Raptureâ on a karaoke machine in an upstate New York shopping mall. With her motherâs boyfriend passing on the tape to a workmate at the General Motors car plant, it eventually surfaced in the hands of Harrel - who, impressed with the demoâs unique street-yet-soulful qualities, immediately put Mary in the studio to contribute vocals to rapping labelmate Father MCâs 1991 album âFatherâs Dayâ. Bligeâs own historic debut (the aforementioned âWhatâs The 411?â) meanwhile surfaced just 12 months later - its musical direction overseen by Uptownâs then-high-profile A&R man Sean âPuffyâ Combs.

⦠Today, in contrast, Queen Maryâs latest trip to the UK coincides with the release of her aforementioned tenth studio LP âMy Life II⦠The Journey Continues (Act 1)â. The follow-up to her 2009 US Number Two album âStronger With Each Tearâ - and pioneered by its dramatically-orchestrated, gritty new offshoot single â25/8â - it finds her in reflective yet upbeat form. As a now-40-year-old Ms. Blige - speaking in crisp, no-nonsense New York tones - reacquaints herself for the fourth time with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, within the comfort of Knightsbridgeâs opulent Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a revealing and typically-forthright chat.

With the album being described as âretro with lots of live instrumentation and soul samplesâ, what Mary wanted to achieve musically this time round

âJust music that was great, music that was real, and music that would overall remind people of what the âMy Lifeâ album was about. You know, though Iâm not trying to COMPETE with the âMy Lifeâ album - because that album is very special to ALL of us - I still wanted to create something that would make people feel good about the WORLD again. Because with so much techno and four-to-the-floor and general loss of live instrumentation going on today, to me people are not doing real MUSIC any more. And so with this album I really wanted people to remember when music about QUALITY instead of QUANTITY! You know, with all the âCome on everybody, letâs all do the same thingâ going on now, I basically wanted to separate myself and give everybody back what I feel music today is MISSING.â

What themes she wanted to touch on lyrically with âMy Life II⦠The Journey Continuesâ

âI guess Iâm mostly just touching on a lot of different things that have to do with the different aspects of LOVE. You know, a lot of us have learnt how to love; a lot of us have fallen in love; a lot of us have fallen OUT of love; a lot of us have got married; a lot of us have gotten divorced... So in many ways I guess Iâm basically just looking at what life ITSELF is about. Which is why thereâs a lot of really, really conscious music on there. Such as âThe Living Proofâ, which is all about how far weâve come as a people, and how weâve survived so much and turned all the negatives into positive. But then, while it was written in that context as the theme-song to the movie âThe Helpâ, it was also written from MY perspective, in terms of how IâVE grown⦠Then elsewhere on the record you have other songs that really tap into what PERSONAL relationships are about. Like â25/8â, which is all about needing an extra hour in the day, and an extra day in the week, to spend with your loved one - which could be your husband, your child, whatever. While the song âLove A Womanâ on the other hand is dealing with a whole OTHER side to love, where you have a guy whoâs teaching and showing other men what women WANT.â

Maryâs choice of producers this time round

âWell what we do is, we put a signal out to say that we wanna start recording an album; different producers come along and they submit stuff - and basically whoever submits the best stuff is the person that WINS!... And in terms of the producers I collaborated with this time, Danja in PARTICULAR was amazing to work with - to where just watching him sit there and create things from scratch was like a real treat! Plus Jerry âWonderâ (Duplessis) was amazing too. I mean, it was actually in his studio - Platinum Sounds in New York - that the whole album basically started to take SHAPE. In that it was actually the energy and vibe that we created there that led to so many OTHER producers hearing about what we were doing , to where they in turn started saying âWell, we wanna get on board TOO!â⦠Then out of the others, Eric Hudson is always fun to work with; Rodney Jerkins (Darkchild) is another person Iâve known for years... So yeah, overall recording this album was just a great experience.â

The male rappers that Mary decided to bring on board for âMy Life II⦠The Journey Continues (Act 1)â

âAt the end of the day, what helps you choose which rappers are gonna be on which tracks comes down to the song itself and the actual bed of MUSIC that youâre using. So with me having known Nas for a long time, I just felt it was a no-brainer to use him for âFeel Insideâ. Because itâs triumph, itâs New York, and itâs the era that he and I COME from. Then with Drake being both a singer AND a rapper, when it came to selecting someone to ride the beat of âMr. Wrongâ I felt he was the perfect person. While with Busta Rhymes being someone I love very much and whoâs always supported me, because his rhymes are always so exciting I knew that for such a super-energetic track like âNext Levelâ, he was definitely the one whoâd take it TO that next level!... Then with Rick Ross, because he loved the track âWhyâ as soon as he heard it, he straightaway decided heâd add some ad-libs to the verse. But then what happened was, once heâd done that, everyone - including me -started wanting him to put a RAP on it! So we called him back, and he gladly OBLIGED!â

Maryâs ideas on the state of R&B and hip hop today, neither of which are anywhere near as prominent in the mainstream as they were five /six years ago

âWell, like you say, neither R&B nor hip hop is not as strong as it USED to be. Though having said that, as far as hip hop goes, the Jay-Z and Kanye (West) âWatch The Throneâ album does have a lotta real, real good music on it that reminds you of how hip hop USED to be - and so hopefully people will now FOLLOW that. But while there is some hope for hip hop, to me itâs R&B thatâs in a REAL bad way today. Mostly because every female that comes out these days is expected to be RIHANNA, which is not FAIR! Because while we love Rihanna, at the same time everything is not for EVERYBODY! Which is my main reason for doing the type of album Iâve DONE this time round. You know, with me having the courage to stay away from the four-to-the-floor/techno thing and do something no-one else is DOING right now, hopefully itâll make OTHER people fight for their identity in the music business once more! And if me making a statement like this DOES challenge other artists to do the same, then hopefully R&B - which right now is dying - will RETURN!â

Maryâs acting role in the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of the Eighties jukebox hit musical âRock Of Agesâ, which impressively sees her starring alongside the likes of Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Katherine Zeta Jones and Russell Brand

âFor me the whole experience has been a total gift and a total blessing. I mean, just to be on the set with Russell Brand - whoâs an amazingly nice person - and Tom Cruise, whoâs amazing too - not to mention Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and Julianne Hough - was just so much FUN! You know, itâs basically a Broadway musical based on Eighties classic rock and set in Los Angeles in the Eighties, where people are looking for love or looking for a career. And the character Iâm playing (Justice Charlier) I feel really GREAT about! Because, with her being a gentlemenâs club owner on Sunset Strip, what SHE has to do is kind of similar to what I have to do in MY life! Which is to encourage women to feel good about themselves, no matter WHAT theyâre doing - whether youâre working in a strip club, working behind a desk as a receptionist... You know, itâs all about just encouraging women to not let the circumstances dictate what their IDENTITY is, and just feel GREAT about themselves... So yeah, for me being in the film and being able to play that role has just been an incredible experience!â

Maryâs reasons for co-founding, in May 2008, The Foundation For the Advancement of Women Now (aka FFAWN), whose stated mission is to empower women from all walks of life to reach their full individual potential

âWhen I was coming up of course I didnât finish High School, I was a very insecure woman, I was an abused woman⦠You know, I basically went through HELL. But then the difference between me and the many women whoâve gone through the same thing, is that I was given an opportunity to CHANGE that. And so my main reason for starting The Foundation was to give those other women the SAME opportunity to change - through education, through empowering them, through cheering them on, and basically just letting them know that Mary J. Blige is THERE for them. And Iâm pleased to be able to say that FFAWN has already sent 50 women to college on four-year scholarships, plus we also now have The Mary J. Blige Centre For Women (based in Yonkers, New York) that acts as a one-stop shop - in that it has a GED programme, a childcare system, plus a computer room to get your resumes together⦠So yeah, we are trying to make this thing strong - and as I say, so far weâre definitely looking GOOD!â

The album âMy Life II⦠The Journey Continues (Act 1)â and single â25/8â are both released on November 21 through Matriarch Records/Gaffed


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