When her debut album, What's the 411?, hit the street in 1992, critics and fans alike were floored by its powerful combination of modern R&B with an edgy rap sound that glanced off of the pain and grit of Mary J. Blige's Yonkers, NY, childhood. Called alternately the new Chaka Khan or new Aretha Franklin, Blige had little in common stylistically with either of those artists, but like them helped adorn soul music with new textures and flavors that inspired a whole generation of musicians. With her blonde hair, self-preserving slouch, and combat boots, Blige was street-tough and beautiful all at once, and the record company execs who profited off of her early releases did little to dispel the bad-girl image that she earned as she stumbled through the dizzying first days of her career. |
Born in the Bronx, New York, New York to a jazz musician father and a school teacher mother, Mary was exposed to music from an early age. At the age of four, Mary's father, Thomas, left the family, leaving her mother Cora to raise Mary and her older sister Latonya alone. A couple years later, Mary's family relocated to Yonkers, where they resided in one of the cities most dangerous housing projects. Music eventually became Mary's refuge, singing lead in her church's choir, and at seven she won a talent contest singing Aretha Franklin's "Respect." While continuing to remain true to her love of music, as Mary entered her teen years, she began experimenting with recreational drugs and eventually dropped out of high school.
Her rough life there produced more than a few scars, physical and otherwise, and Blige dropped out of high school her junior year, instead spending time doing her friends' hair in her mother's apartment and hanging out. When she was at a local mall in White Plains, NY, she recorded herself singing Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture," into a karaoke machine. The resulting tape was passed by Blige's stepfather to Uptown Records' CEO, Andre Harrell. Harrell was impressed with Blige's voice and signed her to sing backup for local acts like Father MC. In 1991, however, Sean "Puffy" Combs took Blige under his wing and began working with her on What's the 411?, her debut album. Combs had a heavy hand in What's the 411?, along with producers Dave Hall, Mark Morales, and Mark Rooney, and the stylish touches that they added to Blige's unique vocal style created a stunning album that bridged the gap between R&B and rap in a way that no female singer had before. Uptown tried to capitalize on the success of What's the 411? by issuing a remixed version of it a year later, but it was only a modest success creatively and commercially.
In 1988, at age seventeen, Mary recorded an impromptu cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up In The Rapture" at a recording booth in a local shopping mall. Mary's mother's boyfriend at the time later played the cassette for a music industry contact, Jeff Redd, a recording artist and A&R runner for Uptown Records. Redd sent it to the president and CEO of the label, Andre Harell. At the time, the fledgling Uptown was home to a few noted hip-hop and R&B acts of the day, including Heavy D & the Boyz and Guy. Harrell met with Mary, and in 1989, she was signed to the label - becoming the company's youngest and first female artist.
After signing with Uptown, Mary's early years at the company were dormant as the label continued to focus most of its attention on its more established acts. In no hurry to make an instant star out of Mary, her first assignment came in 1991 when she sang the hook on "I'll Do 4 U" by rapper and label mate Father MC. Mary also appeared in the concert-themed music video, in the less than dazzling role of a back-up singer.
Uptown finally greenlit production for Mary's debut album in early 1992. Harrell assigned his young protégée, up and coming label exec., Sean "Puffy" Combs to help oversee the project. Also enlisted were some of the top R&B and hip-hop producers of the time, among them were Tony Dofat, Mark Morales (of The Fat Boys fame) and Mark C. Rooney, and Dave "Jam" Hall. Also included in the producers mix were Combs himself, and Donald "DeVante Swing" DeGrate (member of, and driving force behind, fellow Uptown act Jodeci). The latter association would introduce Mary to Jodeci group member Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, with whom she embarked on a long and tumultuous unfaithful relationship.
On July 18, 1992, Uptown released What's The 411?. That summer, the album's debut single, "You Remind Me", was released to radio and eventually peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and climbed to #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. It was followed up that fall with "Real Love," which fared even better - becoming Blige's second #1 on the R&B singles charts and first top 10 pop single, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100. Both singles were also certified gold.
More 411 singles followed into 1993, including: "Reminisce" &mdash a cover of Rufus's "Sweet Thing" &mdash, and "Love No Limit." By the end of the year, What's The 411? had sold three million copies, and Mary had been crowned "The Queen Of Hip-hop Soul." The albums success spun off What's The 411? Remix, a remix album released in December that was used to extend the life of the 411 singles on the radio into 1994, while Mary prepared for her sophomore album.
On November 29, 1994, Uptown Records released Blige's second studio album, My Life. Darker, moodier, and slightly less uptempo than its predecessor; the set was again overseen by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs (currently calling himself "Diddy": Sean Combs) who, in spite of having left his post at Uptown Records to form his own label (Bad Boy), had an even bigger hand in the pot as he this time co-produced all but one of the albums tracks. At this time, Combs also took over Mary's manager.
Unlike What's The 411?, which featured no self-penned lyrics from Blige herself, this time her role was extended to include songwriter, as she co-wrote a healthy bulk of the material and based it on the happenings of her personal life - hence the title. Although overwhelmingly praised by both critics and fans, Blige also received some flack for the album being so sample-heavy.
The album's first single, "Be Happy," peaked at #29 on the Hot 100, and shot up to #6 on the R&B singles chart. In early 1995, it was followed up with a cover of Rose Royce's "I'm Going Down." Other My Life singles included: "You Bring Me Joy," "I Love You," as well as the heavily played (but never officially released as a single) album tracks, "Mary Jane (All Night Long)" and "My Life". The album proved to be yet another multi-platinum home-run for Blige, selling another three million. In spite of its success and her growing fame, Blige was in no mood to celebrate, as she later admitted she was simultaneously dealing with long time bouts with drug addiction, alcoholism and depression; in addition to an abusive relationship with Hailey, which all played into why Blige had earned a reputation in the industry for being a bitch.
Also in 1995, she extended herself to several outside projects: recording a cover of Aretha Franklin's classic "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for the soundtrack to the hit FOX series New York Undercover - and "Everyday It Rains" for the soundtrack to the hip-hop bio pic, The Show. Her biggest professional achievements came that summer when she scored a hit duet with rapper Method Man on his song, "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By" (which sampled the classic Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's 1968 single, "You're All I Need To Get By"). Later in the year, she also recorded the Babyface penned and produced "Not Gon' Cry," for the soundtrack to motion picture, Waiting to Exhale. The platinum-selling single rose to #2 on the Hot 100 singles chart (#1 R&B) in early 1996, and became her biggest hit up to then. That year, Mary won her first Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for her collaboration with Method Man.
On April 22, 1997, MCA Records released Blige's junior effort, Share My World. After internal conflicts of interest with Puff Daddy, reportedly due to his managing his own label and budding career as an entertainer, the two dissolved their working relationship, which resulted in this being the first album in her career without Comb's involvement. To compensate for his absence, a bevy of high profile producers were recruited, including: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Chucky Thompson, R. Kelly, Babyface, and most notably an up and coming Rodney Jerkins, who helmed a significant portion of the album.
Share My World, a noticeably more vibrant and optimistic toned set, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and spawned four hit singles: "Love Is All We Need" (featuring Nas), "I Can Love You" (featuring Lil' Kim), "Everything" and "Seven Days." Commercially it continued the vein of the two that came before it, going triple platinum and selling five million worldwide. In early 1998, Mary won an American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Album. The summer she embarked on the Share My World tour, which resulted in a gold-certified live album released later that year simply titled The Tour.
Blige made her acting debut in 1998 on The Jamie Foxx Show playing Ola Mae, a preacher's daughter who wanted to sing more than gospel music. In 2001, she played Mrs. Butler in the independent feature film, Prison Song starring rapper Q-Tip. Blige reportedly felt she could play the role, citing that it mirrored parts of her own family life. The same year, Blige made a cameo on the Lifetime network series, Strong Medicine, playing Simone Fellows; lead singer of a band who is sick, but refuses to seek help.
On August 17, 1999, Blige's fourth studio album simply titled Mary was released. A departure from her more familiar hip-hop influenced sound, this set featured a more earthy, whimsical and adult contemporary-tinged collection of songs, reminiscent to 1970s and early 1980s soul. Also featured on the album were high profile guests, such as: Aretha Franklin (who dueted with Mary on "Don't Waste Your Time"), Elton John (who played keys on "Deep Inside," which featured a sample of his 70s-era hit "Benny & The Jets"), Eric Clapton (who played guitar on "Give Me You"), and Lauryn Hill (who wrote, produced, and sang background on "All That I Can Say.") Blige also recorded a duet with George Michael called "As," which is featured on the UK release, but was left off of the domestic tracklist - reportedly because MCA felt that association with the openly gay and often controversial pop star wouldn't be in her best interest.
On December 14, 1999 the Mary album was re-released as a double disc set. The second disc was enhanced with the videos for the singles "All That I Can Say" and "Deep Inside." The second disc also included two bonus tracks - "Sincerity (featuring Nas & DMX)" and "Confrontation."
Though the album was critically praised, becoming her most nominated release to date, and sold respectfully well (going double platinum and moving almost two million) - it wasn't as commercially successful as her prior albums, as all of the singles ("All That I Can Say," "Deep Inside," "Your Child," and "Give Me You") underperformed on the radio and charts. At this time, however, Blige and MCA seized the moment and tapped into niche club market by issuing club-friendly dance remixes of the Mary singles. In lieu of this, Mary scored a #1 hit on the Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart with "Your Child," which topped the chart for one week in October 2000.
Also in 2000, Mary released the overseas-only compilation, Ballads, which featured the best of Mary's ballad material. Blige also scored a hit duet with Wyclef Jean on the song "911," featuring on his album The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book
On August 28, 2001, MCA released Blige's fifth studio album, No More Drama. The album's first single "Family Affair", produced by Dr. Dre, became Blige's first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it sat for six consecutive weeks - becoming one of the years biggest songs, and the biggest hit of Blige's career. It was followed by the top 20 Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced title track (originally recorded for the Mary album), which sampled the famous piano theme to the daytime drama The Young and the Restless.
In spite of the huge boost that the album received thanks to its first two singles, its sales were underwhelming - forcing MCA to repackage and re-release the album on January 29, 2002. The No More Drama re-release featured a brand new album cover, deleted three of the songs from the original track listing, while adding two brand new songs (one of which was the third single and top 20 pop hit "Rainy Dayz," featuring Ja Rule), plus two remixes - one of the title track, serviced by former mentor Puff Daddy (now known as "Diddy." Sean Combs ) The album went on to be certified double platinum, selling four million worldwide, and Mary won her second Grammy - Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the song "He Think I Don't Know."
On August 26, 2003; Mary's sixth album Love & Life was released by Geffen Records (which had absorbed her previous label, MCA). After breaking the ice with Diddy on the "No More Drama" remix; Mary, again, heavily collaborated with him for this set. Thanks to the history between them (which is generally regarded as their best work, respectively) and Mary having just come off of her successful fifth album, expectations were high for their "reunion."
Despite the album debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200, Love & Life's lead off single, the Diddy produced "Love @ 1st Sight" (which featured a rap cameo by Method Man), just barely cracked the top 10 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks - while altogether missing the top 20 on the Hot 100. The two following singles, "Ooh!" and "Not Today" fared worse. Although the album was certified platinum, it became Blige's lowest-selling and biggest commercial disappointment to date. Critics and fans alike largely panned the disc for its lack of consistency and noticeable attempts to recapture the early Blige/Combs glory.
Meanwhile, Mary and Diddy reportedly struggled and clashed during the making of this album. That, added to its luke warm public reception to Love & Life, contributed to the two once again parting company again when the project was completed.
In 2004, Blige starred in her first off-Broadway play, The Exonerated. The play chronicled the experiences of real death row inmates. Blige portrayed Sunny Jacobs, a woman who spent 20 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.
In spite of buzz circulating in the summer of 2005 that Blige's next release would be a greatest hits retrospective aptly titled Reminisce, she and her label formally announced that an album of brand new material was, instead, on the way. On December 20, Geffen released Mary's seventh studio album, entitled The Breakthrough.
The inspiration for the title and tracks within in this album stem from the fact that she finally began to realize her self-worth. She realized that nobody cares; if she wanted to help herself get over the many problems that plagued her life, then it would have to come from within. Blige stated that she had to end the "pity party". In an interview with Oprah in May 2006, Mary explained the history and background that had encouraged her to realise this.
Indeed a return to her prime, the lead off single "Be Without You" quickly raced up both the R&B and pop singles charts, topping the former for a record setting fifteen consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, the album simultaneously debuted at #1 on both the R&B albums and Billboard 200 albums charts, selling 727,163 copies in its first week - the biggest first-week sales for an R&B solo female artist in SoundScan history, the 5th largest first-week sales for a female artist and was the 4th largest debut of the 2005. Production on the album included Blige herself, Rodney Jerkins, will.i.am, Bryan Michael Cox, 9th Wonder, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Raphael Saadiq, Cool and Dre, Dre & Vidal, and includes a duet with U2 on the cover of the 1992 U2 hit, "One", which was released as the second single in Europe and Latin America, where has been a rough market for Blige. Nevertheless, "One" was voted in Britain as the song with the nation's favourite lyric: "One Life, With Each Other Sisters, Brothers".
Since The Breakthrough's release, it has sold over 2 million copies in the U.S and 3 million worldwide.
On a guest appearance for Busta Rhymes' "Touch It (Remix)", Mary revealed her alter ego, crazy rapper Brook Lynn. She claimed in an interview with MTV that she needed a way of topping Busta's manic performance without compromising the intelligent facade she has developed for herself. Brook is the anti-thesis of Mary: body-baring, boisterous, and in your face. of Brook Lynn is also featured in Mary's most recent hit, "Enough Cryin". At first, Brook Lynn was known as "Brook" seen on the back of Mary J. Blige's CD, The Breakthough. They soon added "Lynn" to make it sound like Brooklyn, as in Brooklyn,, New York. No one never knew who Brook Lynn was until the Touch It Remix.
In December 2005, news spread that Blige had landed the starring role in the upcoming MTV Films biopic on Nina Simone. She was personally targeted for the role by the film's writer, Cynthia Mort, who felt Blige was the perfect person to bring Simone to life. There is no word yet as to when the movie will start shooting.