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Lost and found

Mary J. Blige finally moves beyond the pain that's shaped her art. Phase 2: Contentment.

August 24, 2003|Alan Light | Special to The Times

New York — Mary J. Blige is happy. And that's a hard-won state for the singer whose pain has helped define a sound and style that shaped a generation of female vocalists. Blending pure soul emotion with hip-hop beats, cool and attitude, over the past decade she's become perhaps the single central figure in contemporary R&B -- the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, a new Aretha Franklin. But happy? The sound that infused five multi-platinum albums came straight from her open wounds -- at a punishing cost.

"I lost a lot," she said. "I lost my voice, my mind, my dignity. I lost respect for myself. I lost a lot of money -- money that I didn't even know I made, that other people have in their pockets right now. The bottom line is, I lost me.

"But everything that I lost, I gained back, because I put the alcohol and everything terrible out of my life. Once you understand what you've lost, you understand that you can lose your life. And once you choose life, you gotta start working on how to stay alive, and you just start working on you."

Blige's devoted fans know all about her bad relationships, her depression, her substance abuse. They've always taken her struggles personally -- as expressions of their own. "Mary's strength as an artist is the pure pain that comes out of her vocals," mega-producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds once said.

Trouble shaped her art. And now, she says, it's gone.

Between her last album, 2001's "No More Drama" and now, she's cleaned up her lifestyle and fallen in love with musician-producer Kendu Isaacs (the two are engaged). So while her new CD "Love & Life" reflects Blige's experiences just as sincerely as her earlier efforts, it speaks of very different feelings. The woman who's sung for years about wanting to slow things down -- the chorus of one of her first hits was "All I really want/ Is to be happy" -- now lives in Bergen County, N.J., and exudes the sense that she has finally made it to the mountaintop. The diva who picked fights with journalists and played out a public soap opera with ex-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey (of the groups Jodeci and K-Ci & JoJo) says she's shedding the bad times for good.

Contentment, though, brings different questions: Her fans have followed her faithfully through all her ups and downs, finding through her a sisterhood of raw emotion. What will they make of a satisfied, relaxed, adult Mary J. Blige?

Even in a depressed music business, commercial expectations for "Love & Life," due in stores Tuesday, are high. ("No More Drama," released in two slightly different configurations, sold a total of 3 million copies.)

In a sunny hotel room overlooking Central Park, dressed simply in a black T-shirt and black slacks (plus gold sandals and gold sunglasses, both of which she slipped off occasionally while she spoke), Blige, 32, acknowledged that she needed to leave spaces on the album for darkness, for talking about her not so distant past -- "I gotta cover my people that are still in limbo, like I was."

Midway through "Love & Life," there's a spoken interlude titled "Finally Made It" that directly addresses her transformation (in it, she says that if she weren't a singer, she'd "probably be braiding hair or working at a supermarket"). "When I say I finally made it," Blige said, "I don't mean I'm successful with money, I mean spiritually. Success in the mind, peace of mind, is success. That song is just showing people from my view how I did it, how I made it through all this madness."

A new mix of sound

Before Mary J. Blige, female R&B singers were clinging to the rules of an earlier generation. At the dawn of the '90s, stylists like Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle -- more pop than raw -- defined the form. Meanwhile, at Uptown Records, a sound known as "New Jack Swing" was being born, blending hip-hop beats with R&B singing on records by Guy and Heavy D and the Boyz.

No one had brought these opportunities together, though, until an aspiring producer, previously an intern at Uptown, named Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs met a new singer from the projects of Yonkers, N.Y., named Mary J. Blige. Combs helped the tentative Blige, barely out of her teens, mix the sound of her streets with the songs she grew up hearing and to work out a look and image that made the package clear. Her emotions were unfiltered, her rough edges unhidden, her clothes identical to those her audience might wear, all establishing the quality that every fan constantly singles out about Blige -- her "realness." The result: Her 1992 debut, "What's the 411?" went triple platinum.

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