Mary J. Blige


“I just try and do what Mary would do – all the time”
– Mary J. Blige

New York. The night before Valentine’s Day.
Snow is falling and, at least as far as Mary J. Blige is concerned, in terms of romance the forecast is also looking decidedly frosty.
“What about Valentine’s Day ?!“ she challenges when I mention it, as much as to make small talk as anything.
This is not the false modesty or bravado of a star who knows perfectly well that her success is matched by her (albeit brooding) allure and is so bound to be surrounded by admirers.
Last year, Mary’s tally of Valentine’s Day cards was, she emphasises, precisely One and this year she isn’t expecting any. She hasn’t sent any either.
“No I haven’t,” she bridles, with a pout. “I don’t have nobody to send a card to !”
Despite the fact that virtually every song she has ever sung has been about the joys or heartbreak of being in love, hip-hop’s Queen of Soul is not only single, she has been for a year or more now. Alone again, naturally. Neither is it because she is secretly pining for someone.
“Nah, I’m not even lookin’,” she says with not entirely convincing defiance. “It’s better to be on my own. That’s how I’m feelin’ right now.”
So it’s true then. Mary J. Blige really does equate love with pain.
“That’s right,” she nods determinedly. “It’s just pain. That’s it. I know that if I go lookin’, I’m finished…”

Anyone listening to Mary J. Blige’s new album Share My World or its remarkable predecessor, the deeply romantic, classic of modern sorrow, My Life will not be surprised to learn any of this (the songs, the voice), although it’s never easy to know where the persona stops and the actual person starts.
With Mary though, you could always feel there wasn’t really that much difference.
Although press-wise, she gained something of a reputation as a bitchy primadonna or a difficult diva, on record, emotionally, her persona has always been that of the spurned suitor, the lonely lover who never finds what she is looking for and who accepts that her life is going to be made up of “if only”s and “I want the one I can’t have”s.
Even on the title track, which is based on a riff from Roy Ayers’ Sunshine, a seemingly generic, up-beat, line like “Life can only be what you make it” is followed by the sentiment “when you’re feeling down/you should never fake it/If you looked at my life/and seen what I’d seen….” she sighs.
Coming after her (more manufactured) 1992 debut,What’s the 411, she told one interviewer the motivating force for taking more control of My Life, was that “most of the songs were about pain. I couldn’t take no more.”
Musically full of deft references to old school soul from Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White, and with a tour-de-force vocal performance that brought to mind comparisons with Anita Baker and even Aretha, My Life was one of hip-hop’s breakthrough albums. Mary was hailed as “the voice of a generation.”
Despite of (or perhaps because of) the album’s massive success, Mary herself remained something of an enigma, seemingly struggling to come to terms with her fame, and how to present herself.
Certainly she seemed to have a more complex nature than the rash of composite hip-hop-girls-with-soul who followed.
“Yeah,” she would sigh, “I was always a deep kinda kid.”
Interviewers complained that in person, contrary to what they had read about her, the great diva was moody and even depressed, or so shy and reticent, they didn’t get anything out of her.
She picked up that habit of truly strange superstars – talking about herself in the third person, “doing the Mary thing” or explaining something by shrugging and saying simply “that’s what Mary does.”
“I just try to do what it is,” she says to me at one point, talking about her music. “Not what everybody else is doin’. I try and do what Mary would do, all the time.”
She seemed to grow more and more defensive, defining her work in terms of survival, and her life in terms of struggle. This (presumably) was something she taken with from growing up in the projects of New York’s Yonkers.
One of four kids, she was raised by her mother, a nurse, and elder sister La Tonya, who still sings with her today and is an almost constant companion.
When she was 20, more for the neighbourhood block parties than anything else, she made tape of herself singing Anita Baker’s Caught Up In The Rapture, and ended up, almost inadvertently, with a deal with MCA.
What’s the 411 ? went top 10 in the Billboard charts, selling three million copies worldwide, and helping start the wave New Jill Swing wave taken up by the likes of SWV, Jade, and Xscape.
Mary though was not like them. She was somehow all things to all men. She could do glamour but had the roots to represent. She was tough but exuded this acute sense of suffering. She was indubitably, a strong woman, with
Attitude with a capital A, but over-sensitive, easily wounded.
All of this went into 1995’s My Life (produced for Bad Boy by her mentor of the time, Sean “Puffy” Combs), which, even for fans, was a revelation, and in turn, sparked its own set of imitators – Faith Evans, Monica, Brandy.
(“You know who’s frontin”” she would spit.)
Besides Anita’s You Bring Me Joy and Rose Royce’s show-stopper, I’m Goin’ Down, her confidence was such she even covered Aretha’s You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.”
“Just like Billie Holliday’s shit was kinda blue,” said Puffy at the time, “Mary is blue in her own way. She doesn’t have any prior training. She just sings from her heart.”
A series of scene-stealing cameos followed: with Method Man on You’re All I Need To Get By” (for which she won a Grammy), Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (with Faith Evans) and, most recently on Ghostface’s utterly miserable trek through the trials and tribulations of ghetto life, All That I Got Is You.”
The devastating hip-hop gospel of Not Gon’ Cry from Waiting To Exhale, spent weeks in the American top three.
For a while though, there seemed a real danger that Mary would be remembered for more certain other aspects of her reputation – more as a drama queen than a soul queen, not so much troubled as troublesome. She would turn up hours late for shows or interviews, surrounded by an entourage, either sulking, being truculent or throwing tantrums. Her bad reputation culminated with a disastrous show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, where she was booed after a ridiculously short set with no encore. (She later claimed she had been forced to do the show despite the death of her cousin in a shooting.)
She started getting letters addressed to “Bitch of the Year”.
Her image became such a problem, her record company had her spend 17 weeks on an Artist development course, being coached on etiquette and interview technique, and studying books like Donald S. Passman’s seminal All You Need To Know About The Music Business”.
Andre Harrell told Vibe at the time, “the whole experience (of fame, success) was overwelming for her. She wasn’t ready to be put under the microscope in that fashion. Two things can happen when you put people in that kind of light before they are emotionally and mentally prepared to
handle it: they are lash out or totally withdraw.”
Mary did both, admitting to Time Out, “London cleared up alot in my mind. I knew that if I didn’t learn from that, I’d be finished.”
But whilst the press was lauding My Life as the “first great soul album of the 90s” and hailing the appearance in interviews of “a new Mary”, all her good work was undone with a bad-tempered spat with Veronica Webb for Interview.
Having waited for hours, Webb’s piece centred on Mary smoking, and drinking with her entourage, bristling at Webb’s ‘stupid” questions and eventually challenging her to take their differences outside. Not surprisingly, Mary’s
threat to the rather earnest supermodel that she could “fuck her up” became the most memorable line she had uttered in an interview for years.

Two years on and Mary’s reputation still precedes her.
The atmosphere in the top floor photographic studio on Broadway is tense; waiting for one royal hurricane to blow in.
But to everyone’s astonishment, she is on time, on the dot, almost unrecognisable by the lack of big entrance, so low-key in fact that only the presence of her man-mountain bodyguard suggests she might be Somebody.
By the end of a long day with her, we are all congratulating ourselves on having got through it without any tantrums or diva dramas, although quite why we should take any of the credit is anyone’s guess.
Still only 26, she is actually a slight, quiet figure, with a strawng New York accent and cool croaky voice, younger and shyer than everyone had expected. Rather than take over the room with her personality, she keeps to herself, seemingly so wary of crossing anyone, she’s got no interest in mingling.
She and la Tonya both have Japanese tattoos on their hands – Mary had the symbol for Strength done last summer in LA. Five others confirm the image of her as “really just a little projects girl”, rather than a soul diva. She has her name in gothic capitals on one bi-cep and an elaborate cross on the other (“for all the members of my family that’s passed”). She has a butterfly on her back (“which symbolises women”) and one on the inside of
her thigh that “is just shit that hurt real bad.”
“It’s a rose. That’s just how I was feeling that day…”
“Like a rose ?” laughs her sister.
“My God, I felt like I was being tortured.”
She has one other tattoo but she isn’t even going to tell me where, let alone show me.
“It’s on her booty !” laughs her sister, prompting a roar of laughter from Mary and her make-up girls.
“What did your mum say ?“
“She said she was goin’ to get one !” Mary cries with consternation. “I was like, no mommy, no.”
Once the tape is on though, Mary’s guard is firmly down. There is something slightly lost and hunted about her – as if she has been burnt by so many previous run-ins with the media that her spirit has been broken.
I try buttering her up by laying on praise for Seven Days, the stand-out track on the new album, which, I tell her, has the feel of a Me And Mrs. Jones storyline to it; a classic.
But she just says back: “Yeah.”
You don’t get many of those in a lifetime…
Talking about other songs on the album gets nowhere.
“They’re kinda deep, huh ?“ she says softly.
She’s seems so meek it’s something of a relief when she loses her rag in the middle of a phone interview with the writer of a British rap magazine who persists in asking her why she parted company with Puffy.
“Get this motherfucker off the phone”, she snaps, holding the phone away from her.
Mary’s problem as far as the press is concerned seems to be that, she just hasn’t got enough of an agenda or ego to put into interviews anymore. It all rebounded on her when she did.
Asking something a bit different just throws her off.
“I know what you’re saying,” she sighs after a long struggle to say something, “but I’m trying to get the answer the right way for it.”
Even talking about Veronica Webb, she shrugs and says quietly, “she’s just another person that’s trying to bring me down. Jealousy can take over in a minute. I will never understand it for as long as I live,” she drawls almost to herself, sounding like an old-timer.
Her sister, La Tonya, on the other hand, seems more like the old Mary, ready to step into something at the slightest opportunity.
When I (innocently) ask her if Mary’s coat is real or fake fur, she gets right into it straight away:
“Fake fur, real fur, makes no difference. Don’t even think about that one when you’re wearing yo’ belt and yo’ leather shoes.”
I was only asking.
Later on, taking a break, Mary tells me she and LaTonya are “real similar” but that she is (gulp) “worse”.
“We’re just Capricorns,” she shrugs with a smile. “With Capricorns, you don’t mess with them. Even with the nicest ones. She is harder,” Mary says, almost fondly. “But she’s sensitive in alot of areas I’m not – like, dealing
with people when it’s all in a rage and people wanna fight. Now I would be like: “I am not dealing with this. That’s her area right now. I did it too long. I can’t fuck with it man.”
Still maybe the fierce Mary temper was better than the way she is now, so wary there’s something rather sad and almost lonely about her. When I ask Mary what her weaknesses are, she sounds both naive and world-weary, stung by her experiences.
“People, to me, they play on you, when you’re a nice person. They think that your kindness is a weakness and they try to use it against you, to hurt you and that’s what makes me mad because I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m trying to turn my life around – for me. That’s all the shit I’m trying to get away from.”
As for her best quality, there’s something beaten about the way she says it’s that “I can see that shit coming. I know how to just X it out. After you get hurt so much, you really see it coming, even if they come at you with a smile.”
As the day goes by though, thankfully her mood improves. She keeps to herself, hangs with her sister and her home-girls, gossiping and laughing until she’s called to do something.
All day, the new album plays in the background, with Mary looking for ways to perfect it up to the last minute. A George Benson scat over the end of Seven Days produces groans and is eventually taken off the song. With a flourish of old no-nonsense Mary-ness, she comes stomping out of her dressing room, puts on another track and turns the volume up before stomping back with not an instant of recognition for anyone else in the room.
The new album is very much in the same smooth, smoochy, vein of My Life, with Mary sounding eerily like a young, hipper, Anita Baker on the jazzy title track or Aretha on Not Gon’ Cry”.
In the tradition of My Life, the brilliantly addictive I Can Love You brilliantly plays on the riff off Lil Kim’s Queen Bitch and Everything has a neat steal from The Stylistics’ You Are Everything. (There are rumours that Lil Kim is going to do a rap on I Can Love You – a rumour, La
Tonya tells me, that “is so on-the-low, even I just found out about it.”
Mary’s favourite, she says, is Searching.
“It’s deep,” she nods to herself. “It’s mad deep.”
Otherwise, It’s On, Searching and I Can Love You are instant hits, immediate, neat beats imbued with Mary’s warm feeling of melancholy and resignation – emphasising that persona, of a girl who though only 26 has been this way for years – like a Simone or a Holliday.
On the cool groove of Keep Your Head, she sings wanly, “every day’s a struggle” and even on the new single, a rather generic Jam & Lewis stomper, Love Is All We Need, the fade-out features the seemingly spontaneous, soulful, entreaty, “I wanna be happy”.
(No-one sings the line “I want to be happy” as often as Mary does.)
“In a case like mine, I never get what I want,” she complains.
“I sing about the things not that I can’t have but that I would like to have. As far as a man goes, I never get what I want.”
Maybe, I say, she should read that book The Rules, written for 90s women to keep the power over their men – the principal “rules” being things like “Never call him”, “Always end the call first”, and so on. (On her records at
least, Mary is always waiting for the man of her dreams to call and invariably ends up calling him.)
Maybe you need to play hard to get, Mary.
“Definitely. I cannot chase a man. If he’s not calling you, please do not call him.”
“Don’t talk to a man first,” I read to her.
“I wouldn’t,” she says firmly, “No I just wouldn’t. I got that one down. I get men, they come and talk to me, but I just can’t even see myself getting with nobody for a while. Love is not for me right now.”
It’s kind of sad to hear her say, “I don’t expect for a man to take care of me. Like with a man…. I really don’t want all of your time but, like, whatever time you can give me, I don’t mind having it. I would like to have it, you know.”
Maybe Mary’s rep doesn’t help.
“Men are intimidated by strong women, yeah. Why ? Because we’re not goin’ to take their shit. That’s one reason right there.”
Good Morning America that morning, had featured the authors of a book of chat-up lines (“You’re So Fine, I Would Drink a Tub of Your Bath-Water”), the most popular of which seemed to be telling the girl, “Excuse me, I have to go and phone my mother – I told her I would call her if I ever met an Angel.”
“Yeah that’s corny,” Mary laughs. “But if it’s real, it’s not corny. Men say they love you, when they don’t even know you.”
She looks rather forlorn at the question of what she does for fun instead.
“Nothing, I really don’t have nothing.”
Eventually she comes up with going to the gym (“I eat alot”) and ”I try to drink alot of water. What I enjoy, I go home and sleep and do my work. That’s the best thing to me. I hang out with my sister. I really don’t do that much. Not like I used to.”
At home, she’s been listening to Candi Staton (“I listen to that song every day”) the Fugees, the Wu, “buggin” out on Prince. I got the Young Disciples on my CD right now. Alanis Morrissette. She’s saying some stuff too. If I watch TV, I just watch movies all day. Old Sidney Poitier movies or Harry Belafonte movies. The talk shows upset me cos we’s always disgracin’ ourselves. I can’t even mess wit’ them.”
Her favourite movie though is the only time she wonder if there is another side to Lady of Pain way. It’s something rather less tragic than Greta Garbo.
“Blazing Saddles” !” she exclaims, cracking up at the memory.
“Damn that movie is funny. My stomach wuz hurtin’ !”

For her shoot of the day, Mary is wearing a figure-hugging purple Alaia dress, high heels and purple glamour wig.
Maybe it’s because it’s all nearly over, or she just needed time to relax, but now she is really having a good time. She is having a ball in fact, dancing and miming energetically to Chaka Khan and Dru Hill, singing her heart out even when the camera’s gone.
This is the Mary we were all waiting for – Mary The Performer, The Star, showing off, strutting her stuff, dancing with her hands high above her head, Indian cigarillo hanging coolly from her lips, putting on the attitude.
She looks dressed to kill, hotter than July, the lethal Diva who would eat any man for breakfast.
“Imagine goin’ to a party in this dress !” she screams above the music, looking at herself in the mirror.
All the men in the room were probably thinking just that.
Mary, though, to the end, just does what May would do all the time, and inevitably has the last word.
“You would look so stupid !” she says, roaring with laughter.