Mary J. Blige: Back in stride again
Iconic contemporary soul/R&B songstress Mary J. Blige this month returns with her tenth studio album ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)’. Which - titled as the sequel to her seminal 1994 sophomore LP ‘My Life’ and recorded in both Los Angeles and New York - boasts production input from the likes of Jerry ‘Wonder’ Duplessis, Danja, Rodney ‘Darkchild’ 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 Mary’s significant impact on contemporary music (for which she has prestigiously received the World Music Legends Award) we need to turn back the clocks to…
… 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 ‘What’s The 411?’ - the groundbreaking debut album from a shy-yet-streetwise 21-year-old hailing from the city’s 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 America’s undisputed “Queen of Hip Hop Soul”…
… 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 Harrell’s 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 Baker’s ‘Caught Up In The Rapture’ on a karaoke machine in an upstate New York shopping mall. With her mother’s 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 demo’s unique street-yet-soulful qualities, immediately put Mary in the studio to contribute vocals to rapping labelmate Father MC’s 1991 album ‘Father’s Day’. Blige’s own historic debut (the aforementioned ‘What’s The 411?’) meanwhile 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 aforementioned tenth studio LP ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)’. The follow-up to her 2009 US Number Two album ‘Stronger With Each Tear’ - and pioneered by its dramatically-orchestrated, gritty new offshoot single ‘25/8’ - 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 ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, within the comfort of Knightsbridge’s opulent Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a revealing and typically-forthright chat.
With the album being described as “retro with lots of live instrumentation and soul samples”, what Mary wanted to achieve musically this time round
“Just music that was great, music that was real, and music that would overall remind people of what the ‘My Life‘ album was about. You know, though I’m not trying to COMPETE with the ‘My Life’ 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 ‘Come on everybody, let’s all do the same thing’ going on now, I basically wanted to separate myself and give everybody back what I feel music today is MISSING.”
What themes she wanted to touch on lyrically with ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues’
“I guess I’m 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 I’m basically just looking at what life ITSELF is about. Which is why there’s a lot of really, really conscious music on there. Such as ‘The Living Proof’, which is all about how far we’ve come as a people, and how we’ve 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 ‘The Help’, it was also written from MY perspective, in terms of how I’VE grown… Then elsewhere on the record you have other songs that really tap into what PERSONAL relationships are about. Like ‘25/8’, 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 ‘Love A Woman’ on the other hand is dealing with a whole OTHER side to love, where you have a guy who’s teaching and showing other men what women WANT.”
Mary’s choice of producers this time round
“Well 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 ‘Wonder’ (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 ‘Well, we wanna get on board TOO!’… Then out of the others, Eric Hudson is always fun to work with; Rodney Jerkins (Darkchild) is another person I’ve known for years... So yeah, overall recording this album was just a great experience.”
The male rappers that Mary decided to bring on board for ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)’
“At 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 you’re using. So with me having known Nas for a long time, I just felt it was a no-brainer to use him for ‘Feel Inside’. Because it’s triumph, it’s New York, and it’s 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 ‘Mr. Wrong’ I felt he was the perfect person. While with Busta Rhymes being someone I love very much and who’s always supported me, because his rhymes are always so exciting I knew that for such a super-energetic track like ‘Next Level’, he was definitely the one who’d take it TO that next level!... Then with Rick Ross, because he loved the track ‘Why’ as soon as he heard it, he straightaway decided he’d add some ad-libs to the verse. But then what happened was, once he’d done that, everyone - including me -started wanting him to put a RAP on it! So we called him back, and he gladly OBLIGED!”
Mary’s 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
“Well, 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) ‘Watch The Throne’ 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 it’s R&B that’s 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 I’ve 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 it’ll 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!”
Mary’s acting role in the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of the Eighties jukebox hit musical ‘Rock Of Ages’, which impressively sees her starring alongside the likes of Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Katherine Zeta Jones and Russell Brand
“For me the whole experience has been a total gift and a total blessing. I mean, just to be on the set with Russell Brand - who’s an amazingly nice person - and Tom Cruise, who’s amazing too - not to mention Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and Julianne Hough - was just so much FUN! You know, it’s 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 I’m playing (Justice Charlier) I feel really GREAT about! Because, with her being a gentlemen’s 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 they’re doing - whether you’re working in a strip club, working behind a desk as a receptionist... You know, it’s 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!”
Mary’s 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
“When I was coming up of course I didn’t 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 who’ve 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 I’m 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 we’re definitely looking GOOD!”
The album ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)’ and single ‘25/8’ are both released on November 21 through Matriarch Records/Gaffed
READ MORE FROM MARY J. BLIGE IN OUR END OF YEAR XMAS PRINTED ISSUE, INCLUDING; THE REASONS BEHIND HER ALBUM'S TITLE, HER DECISION TO BRING BACK HER RAPPING ALTER EGO BROOK LYNN, HER ALBUM DUET WITH BEYONCE AND HER UPCOMING ROLE PLAYING NONE OTHER THAN NINA SIMONE. **CLICK BELOW TO ORDER YOUR COPY NOW.
Words PETE LEWIS