MARY J. BLIGE: A CHAT WITH THE QUEEN OF HIP-HOP SOUL
Her recent "Share My World" album climbed to No. 1. Her latest, the hit-packed "The Tour" (MCA), culled from live performances, could grow to be even bigger. So Mary J. Blige should be on top of the world.
"I guess I am kind of happy right now," Blige says. "Not much is bothering me. I just hate when people interview you, you tell them something, and they write it the wrong way. That's the only thing I hate.
Consider me warned.
Blige's first two albums, "What's the 411?" and "My Life," also went multiple-platinum, but for Blige, the acceptance of "Share My World" was especially sweet.
"That time," she says, "I had full control over the project, nobody telling me what to do, so the success means that much more.
A musical maturation process was evident on that album. "For yourself, you have to go through changes. You want to do new things for the new generation coming up," she explains. "But you also want to keep it kind of stable for your older generation. You want both crowds.
"I want to give the fans what they want. I owe them. If they don't go out and buy your album, you won't have anything.
The 26-year-old singer has been imitated by many entertainers. "It's flattering," she admits. "There's enough out here for everybody. So God bless them. I'm still young. I don't mind seeing other people coming out, doing my style.
She's proud of her title "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" "I like the name. I've worked real hard to get it. Now I've got to work hard to keep it. Even if you don't have a crown, you've got to work hard to keep anything you have. And you're always working to get to the next level. When people get into the business, they have to look at it as not all glamour but as real hard work.
After all, work ethic and strength are two good traits for a role model.
"Young kids look at people, trying to see what they should do with their lives. As a performer, you've got to be aware of that," she confirms. "You can go out there and give out the wrong energy, the wrong image. I try to be careful of that. I respect myself, so that's how I want the audience to see me.
Earlier in her career, Blige had a reputation for self-destructive tendencies and temperamental behavior. She's still viewed as being tough.
"You need to be," she says. "When I was younger, everybody thought I was real mean, but I wasn't. It was just a lot of people getting on my nerves. I was young, and I didn't really understand what was going on. Sometimes you have to be tough, or they'll run all over you in this business.
Now a Long Island resident, Blige grew up in low-income public housing in Yonkers, N.Y. Coming from that background, she feels lucky that she's alive, let alone not strung-out.
"The key lesson in the Projects is to mind your own business. Don't be soft." She chuckles and adds, "Or you'll get your butt kicked.
Blige, the survivor, admits to having a vulnerable layer somewhere beneath the toughness.
"Yeah, I do, but the only people who can really get to me are my family, because I love and trust them. So no one can really hurt me." For unwavering emotional support, she leans heavily on family, particularly her older sister LaTonya.
"She's a big help," Blige says. "Sometimes she sees things I don't see, and she'll give me a little advice, and I'll take heed. I know I can count on my family. You need that in this business; otherwise, you'll go crazy.
Beyond blood relations, it can be difficult to know whom to trust. "Sometimes you don't know, until it's too late," she says. "But you can't close yourself off. I do try to look a little more carefully now, but I still believe everybody deserves a chance. I wouldn't want anyone to not give me one.
With maturity, Blige finds she no longer looks to romance for happiness. She broke up with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci two years ago and hasn't been in a relationship since then.
"I don't know why," she says. "Maybe it's because of who I am right now. Maybe men are jealous of my success. It's hard to find a nice man. But I know a nice man will come to me eventually. That's the least of my worries. I don't have to look for him; he'll just come to me.
When he does, he'd better be willing to accept the demands of her career. "The person I'm with should respect what I'm doing, the same way I want to respect what he's doing.
In the meantime, Blige can turn to her faith, which is more a personal spirituality than an adherence to organized religion, for comfort.
"It's a big part of my life now," she says. "When you get into the spiritual, into God, that's when you really start to learn about yourself. You get to know where your energy and blessings are from.
Blige plans to divert some of her energy into her own record label as well as a clothing line. Meanwhile, with a 23-track lineup that includes such favorites as "Real Love," "Sweet Thing" and "Seven Days," "The Tour" album is certain to keep fans satisfied for quite a while.
Of all she has accomplished, Blige is most proud of the fact that she has become more than a musical flavor of the month.
"You see a lot of people come and go. I want to be here to stay. To do that, the most important thing is to be true to yourself. Know what you want your life to be, what you want to do and how you want to do it.
"When you're true to yourself," she believes, "you can do anything. When you're not, when you have everybody telling you this and that, and you don't follow your heart, then everything is going to be messed up, and it all goes down the drain."
Blige continues to prove herself to be a musical powerhouse. She played SWSW in 2015. Her latest album is The London Sessions. Visit www.maryjblige.com.