MARY J BLIGE
Mary J Blige is one of the most consistent female singers in the music industry today, and probably my favourite female singer of all time. And not just because everyone says I look like her.
Her music career has spanned nearly 20 years, which is ultra impressive for any artist, let alone a contemporary r&b singer, as this particular genre is so fickle and has seen a multitude of good acts come and go.
But Mary has managed to buck the trend by keeping things fresh – her look has evolved throughout the years. And her honest, raw and highly-relatable lyrics, have allowed audiences to identify with her on each album, e.g, her 2007/8 smash single Just Fine (below), from the album of the same name.
Since 1991, Mary has won nine Grammy awards, sold 48 million records, and has managed to maintain a huge amount of respect with fellow artists and fans.
In recent years she has widened her appeal beyond her initial genre and moved from popular r&b singer to bonafide popstar, attaining global mass appeal, and demand collaborating with pop icons U2, George Michael and Elton John.
Right now she is gearing up for the release of her latest album, Stronger With Each Tear, her ninth studio album. She has also broadened her career by adding acting to her resume, and most recently appeared in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?
Mary Jane Blige first appeared on the music scene in 1991 with her debut smash hit US single You Remind Me from her era-defining album What’s The 411? (above).
It was a miracle she had managed to get to that point, as looking at her background many would be forgiven for thinking she wasn’t going to amount to much. Growing up on the notorious Schlobohm Houses projects in Yonkers, New York, she shared a tiny apartment with her older sister, her mother, five cousins and two aunties. Her dad left the family home when Mary was six, so it was left for her mother to support the family. Mary experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a family member at the age of just five, and ran into other conflicts (the now infamous facial scar is something she has never spoken publicly on) while growing up in Yonkers. She later dropped out of school without graduating.
Then in 1989, in a true twist of fate, a demo tape of a then 17-year-old Mary singing a rendition of Anita Baker’s Caught Up In The Rapture, found its way to label Uptown Records, and CEO Andre Harrell. Andre called Mary in and signed her up straight away.
For a while she sang background for other artists, but by 1992 Andre paired her with his young intern, Sean Combs, aka Puff daddy, Puffy. What came out of that pairing was something that would change the face of popular music immensely. First came Mary’s look, which Puff constructed as a sexy but street image, consisting of baseball jerseys, lycra and heavy duty boots. And on the flip side he got her rocking fitted designer suits teamed with baseball caps (as showcased in videos such as Real Love). There was also that now signature blond hair, which has been re-styled and re-invented throughout the years.
What all Puff also master-minded was Mary’s debut album What’s The 411?, released in 1991, and one of the biggest r&b smashes of the 90s! Singles You Remind me and Real Love both reached the hither regions of the US charts, and both went gold. The album went triple platinum.
Music had a new star, and Puffy, the marketing genius and professional hype machine, named her ‘the queen of hip hop soul’ and before long the media followed suit. Mary was on a roll, and continue to make hits, a remix album for What’s the 411 followed at the end of the year, which breathed new life into the album and extended its shelf life. This album also reached multi-platinum status.
Her third album My Life followed in 1994. This album saw another side to Mary and delved deeper into what was really going on in her life. It had a darker theme and tracks like I’m Going Down, Be Happy and My Life detected all was not well. Years later Mary revealed that she had been struggling with drug and drink addiction, depression and an abusive relationship (with Jodeci’s K-Ci) at that point in her life, and was on a road to destruction.
Ironically, while Mary was going through the lowest period of her life, her music was doing really well and fans loved the rawness of the lyrics and dark tone on the tracks, and My Life sold 3 million copies, and was nominated for a Grammy.
Mary’s two albums after that Share My World and Mary are both classic r&b sets, but what was even more note-worthy to me about this period (mid-late 90s) was her determination to shed her negative lifestyle, and her success in doing it. Her 2001 album No More Drama (which featured her first US number one single Family Affair), and the themes it contained was testament to that.
Mary’s husband of six years music executive Kendu Isaacs has also been credited with helping to turn her life around. Funnily enough some fans have complained that Mary is not at her best unless her private life isn’t going well, and have slammed her recent more positive tracks. But these views have not affected her career. Her 2005 album The Breakthrough sold 7 million copies worldwide, and 2008’s Just Fine was also well received.