In the late 80's, Mary J, Blige was noticed by the R&B Uptown Records after recording “Caught Up in the Rapture” in a shopping mall, but it wasn't until her debut album “What's the 411”, produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs, that she began her long and prolific career. However, to understand Blige, and her music, it is important to read part of an interview she gave to Performing Songwriter magazine in January, 2007.
“Songwriting wasn’t something I learned. I was going through hell and just said, “You know what? I’m gonna put it on paper.” I was in so much pain, I didn’t know what to do with everything that was coming out of me. As I wrote songs like “My Life,” I was crying. I was crying writing “I’m the Only Woman,” I was crying writing “Be With You. Puff was the person A&R-ing the My Life project. He always wants everybody to dance and have a good time, so I was afraid to bring this depressing music to him. But when I did, he was like, “This is great! I love it, I love it!” Screaming and going crazy. I was like, “OK, cool. I guess depression is in” (laughs). From then on, I continued to write.”
This was, and still is, the driving force behind her music. When Sean Combs produced her first album, he was determined to keep her gritty, 'ghetto' style of music. In fact, Combs originally nicknamed her “The Queen of Ghetto Love"; although, this was later changed to the moniker that has stuck - the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul".
Combs may have not been great at nicknames but he got everything else right. At the time, black female singers were mainly represented by women such as Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, but Combs realized that he could use her East Coast urban roots to her advantage, which was reflected in her debut album “What's the 411?”
However, it was Blige's second album “My Life” which should (arguably) be considered her first album, as it was this album where Blige's songwriting abilities came to the fore, writing 14 of the 17 tracks. While there was less than unanimous reviews from the critics, “My Life” debuted at #7 on the US Billboard 200, sold over 200,000 copies in its first week, and eventually reached triple platinum. This is all the more impressive as Blige was suffering from clinical depression and was in an abusive relationship at the time.
Blige has continued to inspire and delight her fans; even though her later albums have not always had the same commercial and critical success as her earlier works. In 2014, Blige released “The London Sessions”, an album which garnered critical plaudits, but disappointed commercially.
These days, she is alcohol- and drug-free, is (in her own words) fitter and healthier than she has ever been and has the support of her husband of 12 years, Kendu Isaacs. Compared to her earlier life, we suspect that she is more than content.