At the start of her career in the early '90s, Mary J. Blige covered her eyes with bangs, baseball hats and berets, sunglasses, and shadows. On Mary, the diva maneuver of concealment also matched the basic instinct of a survivalist: see before you're seen, defend before you have a reason to be defensive. What wasn't obscured was her susceptibility to forces around her. Later on, gossip and, eventually, Blige herself would confirm that she spent her twenties and her early thirties depressed, abused, dysfunctional, and spiritually sick. As a 19-year-old singer from Yonkers, the ferocity of her voice conveyed not only that she was going through personal disaster, but that she had the resolve necessary to withstand it.
Women are especially drawn to the fundamental sensitivity of Mary J. Blige. She is the kind of singer who can imbue the tamest of aphorisms — "My life's just fine," or "No more drama" — with the wild sincerity of biography. She does that through her instrument: her embattled, loud, consumed, and gorgeous voice. "I'm a singer who thinks like a rapper," she once said. By this, Blige might have meant a few things: the recycling of soul samples, her savvy self-managerial moves, and her projects-to-riches New York transformation. It's likely she also was saying something about her approach to talking about personal events through narrative, a breakthrough she made for herself and the group of singers, male and female, who now make lovelorn confessional music at the crossing of hip-hop, soul, and R&B.
Even at levels of unimpeachable fame and showy, designer-label wealth, Blige still feels hard. On her current press tour for the release of her 13th studio album, Strength of a Woman, out later this month, Blige has been speaking candidly about the end of her 13-year marriage to Kendu Isaacs. "Unfortunately he was my everything, and you can't make one person your everything," she said in an interview with the radio host Angie Martinez. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd recently wrote at Jezebel: "And yet her confessional nature never seems to be self-serving … She's doing this because it’s what she’s always done."
In anticipation of the realness of Strength of a Woman, here's a survey of the evolution of Mary J. Blige's candidness about the highs and lows of full-throated love.
One of the singles from her massively successful 1992 debut, What's the 411?, "Real Love" is a perennial single-girl anthem. The track was coproduced by a few people, including Cory Rooney and a young, entrepreneurial New Yorker who went by Sean "Puffy" Combs at the time. You can hear their sensibilities meld: The vocals are jaunty, girl-group-influenced, and the piano is backed by a thumping Audio Two sample. Singing about how hard it is to find an authentic man in an ecosystem of losers, Blige endeared herself to fellow unsatisfied women. There's a hint of melancholy to the search. It later came out that Blige recorded the album during an abusive relationship.
“I’m Goin’ Down”
Rarely does a performer put out a cover of a song that becomes more recognizable than the original. Some people don't even know that "I'm Going Down" — the original spelling — was originally released in 1976 by Rose Royce, and was used in the movie Car Wash. Blige's version of the forlorn torch ballad added a noir-ness, along with a sense of the emotional desperation one experiences after being robbed of the one they love. The song was a single off her second album, 1994's My Life, widely regarded as one of the most important solo albums in R&B. You can directly trace the honest emoting on the subject of personal malaise that you hear in Frank Ocean, Future, or even Drake back to the soul singing Blige did on this record. But even in the throes of love-induced depression, Blige always maintained style: The video shows her dressed like a '40s club singer, crooning under the protection of her signature oval sunglasses.
“I Used to Love Him” (with Lauryn Hill)
"I Used to Love Him," a tender pas de deux, is the only duet between women on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill and Blige struck up a friendship at the end of the '90s, when they were both experiencing professional success and romantic trouble. (Hill also wrote and produced "All That I Can Say," on Blige's fourth album, Mary.) The lyric "Gave all my power, ceased being queen / Addicted to love like the drug of a fiend" has a particular resonance for Blige, who garnered her "queen of hip hop/soul" title at the same time that she was contending with the effects of an unhealthy relationship and a dependency on drugs and alcohol. There is a painful lucidity in Blige's voice when she reaches her crescendo: "Content because that part of my life is finished."
“No More Drama”
"No More Drama" is ecstatic. By the release of the same-titled album in 2001, Blige had already built a lengthy catalogue of songs about spiritual exhaustion. But none had this affective sensation of release. The frenzied repetition of "no more drama," over and over again, reminds me of women I've seen fall prostrate at the altar of a church. Blige sang this song with the fervor and abandon of gospel. I know women who turn to this song as a sort of therapy. The video for it shows Blige visiting scenes of turmoil similar to situations we know she's lived through, leaving you wondering if the tears streaming down her face were merely acting.
A survey like this wouldn't be complete without one of Blige's upbeat bops. And there are many — Blige can do feel-good with just as much energy as she does tragedy. There isn't a mom alive that doesn't love 2007's "Just Fine," a song about making it out on top despite all the times you've been dragged down.
“Love Yourself” featuring Kanye West
When Blige announced the tracklist for Strength of a Woman, the line-up immediately sparked curiosity. There are collaborations with Missy Elliott, Quavo, DJ Khaled, Kaytranada, and Kanye West. The Kaytranada feature is the most alluring, since Blige has a demonstrated interest in mixing her weighty vocals with the levity of dance music, and Kaytra did an excellent flip of "I Can Love You" last year. "Love Yourself," the first single from the new album, is wholly traditional, majestic with a screeching horn and a self-obsessed West verse. Blige sings the kind of words that friends and mothers might give you when you've lost yourself in another person: "You gotta feed yourself before you feed somebody else." Singing this, a younger performer would sound unbelievable. Blige sounds elder yet wide-eyed at the truth of it, like always.