Although she stands among the most successful and celebrated R&B singers of all time, Mary J. Blige is no stranger to adversity.
Since her debut at age 21 with 1992’s “What’s the 411?” Blige has inflected her songs with raw emotion, drawing from both the joys and deep lows in her life. That first album sold 3 million copies and was followed by “My Life,” which immediately went to the top of the Billboard R&B charts.
But for Blige, the rise to being labeled the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” wasn’t always pretty. From an incident of sexual abuse as a young child to the departure of her father at age 9, the singer didn’t grow up with an idyllic childhood.
Her big break came after she sang a version of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” at a mall recording booth, which her mother’s boyfriend passed to an artist on the Uptown Records label, which made the teenage Blige their youngest and first female artist.
Despite her success, Blige still subjected herself to abusive relationships and reliance on cocaine and alcohol, ultimately leading to extended bouts of depression. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that she began to permanently put her most serious internal struggles behind her.
The single “Family Affair” from her 2001 album “No More Drama” became her best-known song to date, and in 2003, she wed her husband, who now manages her career.
“When you’re trying to do the right thing in your life, you do the best you can do and be the best you can be, but there are always going to be trials and tribulations and opposition,” says Blige, on the phone from her home in New Jersey before departing on the final leg of her Liberation Tour, which visits the North Charleston Coliseum on Friday.
“I just want to encourage people to realize that they’re not the only one out their bustling, and just to be strong and keep going and keep moving.”
Songs to grow by
In 2011, Blige released “My Life II ... The Journey Continues (Act 1)” as a sequel to the original “My Life.”
Calling upon friends such as Drake, Nas and Busta Rhymes to contribute rhymes and vocals, the album runs the gamut from hip-hop (“Feel Inside”) to an arena-style electronic anthem (“Next Level”) that doesn’t require a remix to move a club full of dancers.
“Someone to Love Me (Naked),” featuring Diddy and Lil Wayne, sounds like classic soul/hip-hop Blige, while “The Living Proof” (included in the film “The Help”) plays more like a stripped down folk/soul song, embodying Blige’s self-identity as an example of how anyone can reach their full potential.
“When I first went into the studio to work on ‘My Life II,’ it occurred to me how strong I’ve become since then,” Blige says in a press release for the album. “What has made me strong is not just the joy and great things happening in my life but the trials and difficulties that cause you to want to move out of that uncomfortable place to get to the next stage. With the first ‘My Life’ album, I didn’t have that understanding. I just did not know why I was suffering so bad, why I was hurting.”
The inspiration to persevere is what Blige hopes fans will walk away from her concerts with: “Don’t give up on yourself, no matter what anyone says,” Blige implores. “If I can do it, you can do it. It’s not going to be easy, but don’t give up. That’s it.”
That’s a message Blige herself is taking to heart. She’s been back in the headlines for more than just her music this spring, due to money problems that include more than $3 million the IRS claims she owes in back taxes, and a lawsuit with banks over unpaid loans topping $2 million.
“ ‘Don’t give up on yourself’ is basically a theme of my life right now. Just keep going,” says Blige.
At her career’s onset, Blige served as a gritty, urban counterpart to the sleeker images of divas, including Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson.
A partnership with producer Sean “Puffy” Combs, now Diddy, on her first two albums proved providential. The music mogul’s influence helped Blige to bridge the worlds of R&B and hip-hop, pioneering the merger of two genres and a sound that’s still a model for stars such as Rihanna and Beyonce.
She’s since refined her image into a sophisticated stateswoman of R&B. But even though her songs are generally happier today, she still revisits the emotions behind her early lyrics each time they’re performed.
“When I sing a song like ‘Not Gon’ Cry,’ it’s just like reliving that. I go back to that moment every time,” says Blige. “Then, with songs like ‘My Life,’ it takes on a whole new meaning now.”
The Liberation Tour digs deep into Blige’s catalog, pulling tracks from most of her 10 albums, including 1999’s “Mary” and 2001’s “No More Drama.”
“We just want people to have a good time,” says Blige. “I have so many albums and so many songs, and we do a lot of them. I want my fans to be happy, and I believe that they will be.”
Performing in the Lowcountry is a homecoming of sorts for Blige. Although she was born in the Bronx borough of New York, her family hails from Richmond Hill, Ga., just outside Savannah.
“My mother and my father both are from Georgia, and my grandparents lived in Richmond Hill and Fleming,” Blige explains. “It was going down there every summer that kind of molded our manners, you know? It gave us the ‘Yes, ma’ams’ and ‘No ma’ams’ and the Southern hospitality, and how to treat people.”
Blige’s grandfather was a minister in a Pentecostal church, and she grew up attending and singing there. Outside of that music, she recalls hearing acts including Parliament, the Brothers Johnson and the Ivory Brothers during her trips to Georgia. Back in New York, those influences mingled with hip-hop to shape her musical direction.
“New York made us really street smart and tough, but the musical influence came from both the North and the South and from my grandparents,” says Blige, also citing her father’s bass playing and a guitar-playing uncle that stood out to her as a child. “I got a good mixture. I am what you see, and I am all of those things, as far as music is concerned.”
For her next project, Blige plans to release a holiday album dubbed “A Mary Christmas” this fall, featuring singers such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and even Barbra Streisand, with whom she duets a “jazzy version” of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
She’s also at work on her next studio album of original material. Although the initial plan was to follow “My Life II” with an “Act 2,” she’s decided to take a new approach for the collection.
“We’re in the process of beginning that. I’ve already come up with the title and started writing songs,” says Blige, emphasizing that penning new lyrics doesn’t just happen spontaneously.
“You really have to focus on it,” she says of the songwriting process. “For me, I have to be living what I’m saying. I have to be around what I’m writing about. Sometimes if a word comes to mind, you have to type it down into your Blackberry or on a piece of paper so you don’t forget it, but that’s the only thing that happens on the fly. As far as writing goes, you have to concentrate to be in it.”
Even with ongoing challenges in her life, Blige claims that the themes of her newest songs are rooted in a “consistency of strength.”
“Plenty of people are struggling who are trying to do good and do right every day, but they get attacked, I guess by the way the world is,” says Blige. “I want to inspire people to keep their dreams alive and keep their hope alive, and I can do that through songs — through happy songs and through sad songs — as long as I let people know you’ve just got to keep going.”