A conversation with Mary J. Blige is an amazing thing. It’s like one of the hip-hop-soul queen’s memorable live performances: a blast of terse vocal rhythms, burning emotion and heartfelt sentiment. For 10 years Mary J. Blige has been revolutionizing R&B by mixing heart-baring lyrics, soulful, raw-edged singing and thumping hip-hop beats.
Without Blige, there would be no Ashanti or Alicia Keys. And her name may one day be mentioned in the same legendary litany that includes Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin.
Most of her biggest hits have been sad, reflecting years struggling with men, drink and drugs. But her latest album, No More Drama, featuring the No. 1 pop hit Family Affair, is a more spiritually uplifting set.
Blige called us from her tour bus, just before a Richmond, Va., date. As usual, she had a lot on her mind. When Blige talks, she often speaks of herself in third person. But it’s not in the ego-trippy way of most rock stars. You get the sense that it reflects the chasm between the woman she is and who she wants to be. The “Mary” she speaks of is a work in progress.
Q: You’ve sung about love throughout your entire career; what does it mean for you now?
A: Love means a lot to me, because I really love Mary for everything that she is. I love her for the things I cannot change about her and for the things that I can change. I love her for the insecurities that I’m praying to God to get deliverance from. I love her for just being strong through all this adversity. I love Mary because she’s not perfect. She’s striving to be, but that might take a lifetime.
Q: Do you worry about how you look when you’re onstage?
A: All of us want to look beautiful, and I don’t think God wants us to look like old hags. God wants us to be beautiful and sexy too. He would appreciate that, because we’re representing Him the right way. But once you’re up there (on stage), that stuff goes out the window. When that moment hits, you might as well forget about those clothes and make sure you have something really sturdy that’s going to stay on your body because there’s no telling what’s going to happen in those moments. I have no control over what happens to me when I sing. I actually visualize and feel what was going on in my life (when I recorded the song).
Q: What do you say to fans who like you better when you sing sad songs?
A: This is not a game. Things have really happened to me. If I was just acting miserable to sell a record, then I would continue to make sad records. But that stuff really aches and hurts now. Things that have happened to me when I was a child that caused those things that I sing about, that stuff hurts right now as a grown woman. I’m trying to get along with my fiancé, and I realize that I am a problem because of what happened to me as a child. And people want me to go back to all that hurt? To actually go backwards just to please them? To hell with them. I’m not here on this earth to die for you. Jesus died so that we won’t have to suffer.