For Mary J. Blige, there’s always been purpose in pain.
A hard upbringing marred by violence. Heartbreak. Addiction. Toxic relationships. Self-hatred.
Regardless of the source, Blige has made it her ministry to navigate the depths of despair and confront emotional trauma through her music — and she always keeps it real, no matter how ugly things get.
It’s that search for catharsis that has made her one of the most influential R&B singers of her time.
Blige’s fusion of gospel-inflected singing and hard-knocking beats helped redefine R&B when she debuted 25 years ago. Ultimately, she became branded the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” and she has collected Grammys in R&B, gospel, rap and pop.
She’s been the therapist, the reverend and the wise sister-friend to millions who’ve turned to her soul-baring songs of sorrow, resilience, and empowerment for personal healing.
And Blige doesn’t just soundtrack lives, she has brought comfort and voice to a generation of women. Just listen to the shouts of testifying whenever Blige sings “No More Drama,” “My Life,” “Not Gon Cry” or any of the many records she has seemingly ripped herself open to create.
The mission of her music is steadfast: “It’s OK to not be OK — just don’t stay there. Keep pushing.”
Her new album, Strength of a Woman, has arrived at a time when she’s facing one of life’s challenges: divorce.
In true Blige fashion, she’s channeled the drama into her music, and the album — a blistering collection of betrayal, heartbreak, self-love, faith and survival — is already being hailed as a return to form for a singer whose most revered work had been born out of suffering.
During a conversation on the eve of her album’s release, her first since 2014’s The London Sessions, a work in which she collaborated with British soul and dance acts, Blige’s weariness was heavy. Never one to mince words, she doesn’t hold back when discussing personal or professional drama. “That’s life,” she says, letting out a deep sigh.
Q: It was surprising to hear you were in a place where you didn’t want to record.
A: Really not wanting to do anything anymore. “The London Sessions” gave me the confidence. It inspired me again, because it let me know I was still appreciated. When I went overseas (to record the album), I was super weak and not feeling good. I was feeling like giving up because it was so much coming down on me. The bad press. Other (stuff) that was going on. It was just so much, on top of me suffering inside of my own marriage that nobody even knew about.
Q: The new album had been in the works for two years. When did its direction change?
A: The beautiful thing about it was (that) when I went into the album, I was fighting for my marriage. I was speaking from that perspective. There’s songs on the album that were different. I loved my husband, and I wanted to keep him. Lyrics didn’t change until what happened happened. When everything got exposed, it was like, “What am I to do now?” I can’t put this album out. I had to go back in the studio with all of that and rewrite songs.
Q: How tough does it get for you in the studio, putting everything out there like that?
A: It’s hard, but it’s good. It’s all therapeutic. As bad as it feels in my stomach and in my heart, I’m no longer suffering inside that situation. Now I can speak about it. I can deliver it. I can get it off of me. Then, when I sing it in concert, I don’t mind reliving it. I’m connecting with my fans.
After the first half of her career was spent crafting albums that exposed her seemingly endless personal turmoil and made her R&B royalty, Blige was on the brink of collapse. She struggled with substance abuse and clinical depression, and her love life was in tabloid-baiting tumult. Blige hit rock bottom — “I knew at some point I was going to die,” she told me years ago — before turning to her faith.
She exorcised those demons on 2001’s No More Drama. She found love, marrying record executive Kendu Isaacs in 2003, with him assuming the role of manager. She often credited him as a saving force, and as the singer felt healthier and happier, her music got brighter — often to the chagrin of fans dissatisfied with “Happy Mary.”
After 2005’s Grammy-winner The Breakthrough, subsequent records were met with disinterest by her fans. Radio appeared to lose interest too.
She also found herself at the center of seemingly never-ending bad press. A 2012 Burger King advertisement in which she sang about fried chicken was seen as pandering to a racist black stereotype, and Blige was met with widespread scorn (it was swiftly pulled). And the licks kept coming. Her charity, FFAWN, was accused of financial impropriety, her own finances became gossip fodder, and her Beats 1 radio show, “Real Talk,” was met with ridicule when the singer discussed racism and police brutality with Hillary Clinton during an episode in which she sang directly to the presidential candidate.
Frustrations with her career and personal life sent her overseas for 2014’s The London Sessions to reevaluate things. She was reenergized by collaborating with acts such as Disclosure, Naughty Boy, Emeli Sande and Sam Smith. Although critically viewed as one of her stronger releases, it was largely overlooked. That it came months after her poorly promoted “Think Like a Man Too,” it left many, Blige included, wondering if she had lost it.
Q: The last few albums didn’t connect with listeners.
A: What I think was happening is my fans were confused with my emotion. I couldn’t tell them that I was suffering. And if I did, they wouldn’t believe me, because they saw me still in the marriage. I think people were confused as to what was going on.
Q: Professionally, things have been tough for quite some time. Is there anything you’d do different?
A: You know, it all boils down to me taking responsibility for my own career and not trusting people with it. Or making decisions for me. I didn’t know the Burger King commercial was going to turn into “she’s singing about chicken.”
Q: The backlash was immediate.
A: Yeah. People were coming like bees in a swarm. I’d never seen so much hatred come from a career mistake. Then right after that it was the FFAWN fraud and all the (stuff) that went down with that. It had nothing to do with me, but my name is on everything. Taxes, this and that. It was one thing after the next. It was all so negative. None of it was no understanding for me being a human being. At that moment, I was like, “This is a wake-up call.”
Everybody was scattering, including (my husband/manager), and left me by myself. That let me know, “OK, I’ve got to really learn how to take care of Mary.”
Q: What have you learned from doing your Beats radio show?
A: That I’m able to do it. I didn’t even know I was able to do it.
Q: When you sang to Mrs. Clinton during the interview, it became a meme. People certainly felt a way.
A: It didn’t bother me as much as all the rest, because I had already been through hell. This was like “Whatever.” Moving right along, because I know what I did in the interview. It may not be what you like, and somebody took a piece of the thing where I was singing and put it out there. It was a small part of something great that I had accomplished, that I was proud of.
NO MORE DRAMA
When Blige split with her husband and manager of 13 years, there was palpable excitement for new music. She’s very aware that many were anticipating this moment. The albums in which she’s most wounded have been salve for her fans.
“Strength of a Woman” is no doubt a divorce record. There was no other choice, as her relationship’s unraveling played out very publicly. The day she sat for this interview, a slew of gossip blogs alleged the source of the split was her husband’s affair with her own protege.
Blige doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff on the new album. “Are you worth this fight? Are we worth this fight?” she questions on “Thick of It.” On the album standout, “Indestructible,” her instruction to “think about how valuable you are” is sung with such intensity that it’s clear she’s talking more to herself than any of her fans.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about how this album is “Classic Mary.” For many, the news that you had drama made them excited for the new album. Has the idea of people being over “Happy Mary” ever upset you?
A:I can’t be angry at them, because misery is all they know. I don’t say that in a negative way. If you know something else, you want something else — happiness, peace, confidence. So you want that from me. If they knew that, they would want that for me. I want to see them rise up and move on with me. But you’ve got to respect where people are. It has nothing to do with me. I have to keep moving.
I’m in pain and hurting and all that stuff, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. This (stuff) hurts … and it hurts too bad to be hurting and know better. I know better. I know there’s love somewhere for me. I’m not going to give up on love.
Q: You’ve said you felt alone in the marriage for years. Why did you stay, and when did you stop trying to make it work?
A: I stayed. I confronted. I’m not the type not to confront. I tried to make it work, but you just get deception and lies and lies and lies. You believe something is going to change or someone is going to change, and they can win an Academy Award with how they just lie straight up to your face and you believe it for so long.
I did everything, and I was like, “OK, maybe this is what marriage is about.”
Q: Was there a part of you that was trying to please the public by upholding this image of happiness?
A: Not for my marriage. I wanted to be what he wanted me to be, which is a good wife. Which is the woman he was always talking about he wanted, that knew how to have a conversation and how to cook or how to do this or do that. I was trying in the marriage to learn … because I really wanted to be with him.
Q: What does happiness look like, and how do you work on maintaining whatever that definition is for you?
A: Happiness for me is peace of mind. Being at peace with myself, at peace with God, at peace with my family. Financially being OK, because finances do play a big part in this — not the biggest part, but it’s a part. How I treat people is a big part in happiness, because how you treat people is how you will be treated in the end.