Mary J. Blige: No More Drama

Let’s get this straight. Mary J. Blige didn’t ask for drama. No one wants to deal with drama and the pain that comes along with it. And she certainly didn’t ask for, or expect, seven Vibe covers, the title ‘Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’, three Grammy Awards or 727,000 albums sold in her first week and […]

Let’s get this straight. Mary J. Blige didn’t ask for drama. No one wants to deal with drama and the pain that comes along with it. And she certainly didn’t ask for, or expect, seven Vibe covers, the title ‘Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’, three Grammy Awards or 727,000 albums sold in her first week and a Number One debut for The Breakthrough. Madonna’s most recent effort sold 350,000 – so you do the math.

Speaking on the phone to Alternatives, Blige is humble and sweet. Her raspy voice sounds overworked, but she knows she can get through it. After all, what is battling a sore throat compared to years of battling alcohol and cocaine addiction? Blige is head-strong, confident and spiritual now, but this is a woman who has endured the worst this industry has to offer. As she describes it – “like lambs in a jungle of lions” – Blige has been abused by herself and others around her, learning the hard way what it takes to be a survivor – and survived she has.

After realizing that she couldn’t sing her problems away (“I used to go on stage drunk all the time”), Blige fought her demons the only way she knew how – by facing them head-on with the help of God. Being a multi-platinum artist with a legacy of music that blossomed from her pain, Blige’s career depended on her to prove that her pain was not necessary to her success as a musician. Her fundamental rawness and energy was something she could supply while being happy and while being sober.

If anything is more to true to Mary J Blige right now it’s her latest release The Breakthrough. Sealing her place in music history, Blige pushes the boundaries of her success as an artist and a person, creating a cocky alter ego called ‘Brook’ to provide an outlet for her more outspoken, Hip-Hop persona. Along with this album, Blige is also starting her own clothing line, and has been picked by MTV Films for the lead role in Nina Simone’s biopic. When it rains it pours for Blige, who is happily married and doesn’t hide it. And if Mary is happy, then who wants to talk about drama? Alternatives and Mary J. Blige shared some laughs recently and kept the negative vibes away (pun intended), because we’re all just so damn happy the Queen is back. Alternatives: Mary, congratulations on your first week success! Were you shocked?

Mary J. Blige: All I could do was thank God. I didn’t know what to expect – I don’t want to say I expected anything less. I believed in my heart that something new was going to happen with The Breakthrough and this is what happened.

AHHA: Are all the ‘Congratulation’ messages coming your way?

Mary: Yeah! I got a lot of flowers. I’m getting a lot of people saying ‘wow’ and a lot of people saying ‘you deserve it’. From everyone, you name it. We have a team – Jeff, Ashley, Polly, and we’ve been in this together for a minute. We stuck through it. When everyone was wavering, I would convince everybody and say, ‘Look we’re in this together, let’s push through’. It’s only going to be what we think it’s going to be. I think it’s going to get even more incredible than this.

AHHA: As an artist of your caliber, do you feel the pressure of Soundscan [sales figures]?

Mary: I don’t like to pay attention to it. I look at it as a blessing and I still have so much more work to do because we need to continue, in the success of this album, to make it even more successful. So I don’t stop there and say ‘Oh we did it!’ because we still have to continue the hard work.

AHHA: You said in an interview that the record labels had written you off.

Mary: Record labels? What do you mean wrote me off? You have to explain that, I don’t quite understand.

AHHA: Maybe you were misquoted, but there was an interview implying the labels thought you weren’t going to last.

Mary: Yeah that’s true. Believe it. I am a living witness here to tell you to believe it.

AHHA: A lot of people doubted whether you would connect to younger audiences. Does this ever come to mind when your doing TV appearances like 106 & Park?

Mary: You can’t have a closed ear when you’re an artist. If you’re an artist today trying to make music, you got to open your ears and your mind just enough so you can bend to find out what it is that the kids want to hear. And once you find out what they want to hear, you can’t do exactly what that new artist is doing, but you do it the way you would do it. And that’s what they love – the individuality of what I’ve done. I try to make sure that my ears are open enough to know what it is the kids want – but I cannot be a copier, I got to be a leader.

AHHA: How did the U2 collaboration come about?

Mary: About four years ago, Music Kids did a tribute to Bono and they wanted Mary J. Blige involved in the tribute. They wanted me to sing a song called ‘One’. So they sent me this record with all these lyrics and I began to listen to it. As I was learning it I realized this song was crazy! The guitars, the drums, it was just stupid! At that time I didn’t really know or understand who U2 was. I heard they were the biggest Rock & Roll band in the world, and I heard songs, but I didn’t know those songs were theirs until I went to the concert and actually sang the song with Bono.

Anyway, so we did the live tribute song for Bono, and I sang it with all the passion in the world because I loved it. About two years later we’re sitting at Jimmy Iovine’s house and the song comes on. I jump up and say to Jimmy, ‘I got to record this record!’ and he goes ‘Mary don’t forget you said that’.

So, let’s fast forward to two years later. We’re in the process of doing The Breakthrough. Bono and I just did a broadcast tribute for Katrina, and Jimmy calls and says, ‘Mary, remember you said you were going to record ‘One’. So what we did is, we took Bono’s part from the broadcast into the studio and I sang all my parts around that. And ‘One’ is on the album. There it is.

AHHA: Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with that you would want to?

Mary: Oh man, there are so many! There are a couple of people I really want to. I really appreciate Kanye West. I have to, somehow, get a track from him. I’ve never did anything with Anita Baker and I have a Christmas album that she did. It’s incredible! I play the Christmas album and it ain’t even Christmas!

AHHA: Did you reach out to Kanye for The Breakthrough?

Mary: I did reach out to Kanye, but he was about to drop his album, and when I reached out to him they were still trying to figure out what he was going to do. So hopefully the next round we’ll be able to do something.

AHHA: In regards to the recent Vibe incident, we know there hasn’t been much progress in terms of reconciliation. Have you learned from this experience? Will you be more careful doing covers?

Mary: I think what I’ve learned is that you really have to have control over everything. A lot of magazines won’t do it [approve covers before publication] but they’ll do it for a Madonna, who sees all her covers before they go out. I think you should really get to see it. They just did it and printed it. And the day it was coming out they sent it to everybody and that’s it. No proof from Mary J. Blige.

AHHA: On a different note, have you communicated with Lil Kim since she’s been incarcerated? I know you both share a close relationship.

Mary: Yes. Kim reminds me a lot of myself. She’s really sincere; she expects a lot of good things from people which people are not going to give. People see us as lambs in a jungle full of lions. And Kim is a giver – she’s a sweet girl, but she’s headstrong and she’s going to do what she wants to do. And you know, the fact that we don’t even want to believe what we see half of the time is what we have in common, and that’s why we get in trouble. I just wrote her a letter to let her know how busy I am right now, and once I slow down long enough to come see her, I will come see her.

AHHA: Did you choose Terrence Howard personally for the role in your video? What was it like working with him?

Mary: Yes I did. I’ve been a big fan ever since he did Dead Presidents. He truly deserves everything that’s happened to him. When I saw him in Crash, he made me cry. When I saw him Hustle & Flow, he made me laugh, then he made me p##### off and sad because I didn’t like the way Ludacris did him in the movie. I can relate to the pimp, how about that! [laughs] He’s just an incredible actor, and then meeting him in person – it’s very rare that you find people who are real people. He was happy to be in the video and I was happy to have him there. He was very patient. He was almost like a teacher. We had to do an argument scene and he said, ‘Whatever is making you mad, get mad at that right now’ and boy, when he said that….he got mad, and I got madder!

AHHA: There has been a lot of talk on our forum about your live performances. Can you shed some light about what you have to go through when performing live?

Mary: What I have to do is make sure there is nothing crazy going through my head. There’s no ‘I’m mad at this person’ going through my head. I can’t go on stage like that anymore. Even when I go on stage to perform a broken hearted song, I have to be clear so the message can cut through clear to the audience. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about the message of the song. When you go up there with anger or resentment towards someone, it’s not going to work. The state of mind I was back in the day, I could have gone up drunk, p##### off and everything else. It’s different now. I think the whole performance is just better, because I’m no longer guessing or caring about what people want me to do. I’m doing what I want to do, and what I know in my heart is right to do.