Blige weathers life's storms, comes out on top


August 18, 2006


More than any other diva on the current music scene, Mary J. Blige has forged a deep and abiding connection with her fans, and it is as integral to her multi-platinum success as her powerhouse vocals, independent spirit and self-assured sex appeal.

The 35-year-old "queen of hip-hop soul" endured the same trials and tribulations that many of the people in her audience are living through, and despite the fact that she has finally found true love (with producer Kendu Isaacs, whom she married in 2003), has reached a point in her life where there's "No More Drama" (to borrow the title of her 2001 album) and has experienced a life-affirming personal "Breakthrough" (as noted in the title of her new disc, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts), she's never forgotten where she came from.

I spoke with Blige in the midst of her current tour, "The Breakthrough Experience," which stops at the Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island on Saturday.

Q. Tell me about your goals in making "The Breakthrough."

A. Well, I think a year before I went up to the studio, I titled the album and started naming things that I wanted it to be, and I just wanted it to make people happy, to deal with life and just everything that people go through -- partying, good times, bad times. What life really is. I wanted to make people rejoice and reflect on life, and I guess make you feel like you're empowered to get better -- that's the theme. I wanted it to be refreshing and not too preachy, but just enough to make people happy.

Q. One of the things that has always struck me about your concerts is the intensity with which your fans identify with you. They really see their own lives reflected in yours.

A. I deal with real life, and I have lived everything they have lived and everything that they are living. I am a woman just like them. I go through whatever they go through every month. I always deal with what is real, and that's probably why they really connect with me, because I'm not living in a fantasy fairy-tale world. I feel that life is not always all sad -- life is happy, too -- but it takes a lot of hard work to be happy. They connect because they see I'm not playing around with this: This is real life to me.

Q. But a lot of artists start out that way, and then lose that connection as they become famous and successful.

A. I haven't forgotten what the hard times were [in] life; life is too real to forget. Everything that I have been through and lived through... it's something that I'll never forget, and my fans are going through it now and they have been going through it for a long time. They go out and buy my record, and if my testimony is going to help them, that's great. I don't think I went through so much in my life just to say I went through it; I think I went through it all to be able to say to somebody else that if I could get better and change, then you can change, too.

Q. Do you ever question whether you're sharing too much in a song? In a song like "Father in You," you really lay your early home life wide open. Is that the writer sharing those things, or is it Mary?

A. It's both. It's the writer and it's me, because at the end of the day, that's what's wrong with so many of us: the dysfunctional home. This is common for half of the world: Almost everybody has either a mother or father leaving. That's what happens to a lot of us, and we end up being messed up because one of the parents wasn't there. We end up going out and looking for love in all of the wrong places and getting hurt. I feel like that is definitely something I don't mind sharing, because it's evident in how I used to behave, what I used to do and how I used to think. When it comes out and it's something I'm not fighting with and I put it on paper and then it's put on record, then it's just something I was supposed to share.

Q. You worked with some incredible producers on this album: Dr. Dre, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, of the Black Eyed Peas. What makes a good producer-artist relationship from your perspective?

A. A good producer is going to give his opinion on what he thinks you're supposed to do, and he's not going to be offended if you want to try something else. He's going to listen to what you have to say. He's not full of himself to the point where he can't make the great record with this artist. They allow you to be you. They let you express whatever made you and made your fans love you at the end of the day. That's a good producer.

Q. You're not known for stifling your opinions. Can that be off-putting for some of your collaborators?

A. No, I haven't had that problem lately in my life. In the past, I've had that problem, but now people respect I'm not an ass----. I'm a respectable but firm person, and I say what I need to say and I don't say what I'm not supposed to say. There's a certain amount of respect I'm supposed to give the producer: You let him voice his opinion because he is the producer. And he has to respect me, too. You have to stand up for what you believe in order to make people believe in you. There's nothing shy or timid about me in the studio: I'm going all in.

Q. Are you still enjoying touring and live performances?

A. Absolutely. I love the songs that I have written and getting to perform them and bring them to life. My fans get to see these songs come to life on stage, and they just give me so much energy and feedback. They get so excited about the whole thing, and it just makes me have even more fun.

Q. Unlike a lot of R&B performers on your level, your shows avoid the big, glossy productions and pretty much keep the focus on the music.

A. I'm an artist, and at the end of the day when you look at an artist's show, say Prince -- the highlight moment of that night is Prince doing Prince. It's just him and his band, and that's what I represent: true artistry, when a lot of people represent entertaining. I'm an entertainer also, but I'm an artist first. That's what it is.