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Work In Progress

Mary J. Blige learns to heal her wounds and reach for the life she deserves, a journey that adds meaning to her music.

February 07, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

MARY J. BLIGE loves her fans and, deep down, she knows they love her. But that doesn't mean all of them want her to be happy. "I had to sacrifice a million fans with this new album," the singer said in a hushed voice on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills. "I know a lot of them don't like a happy Mary J. Blige." She tilted her head and pinched her voice. " 'I like Mary better when she's angry.' " She laughed and then sounded like herself again. "But I found a lot of new fans with 'The Breakthrough,' thank goodness."

"The Breakthrough" is living up to its name for Blige. The album, the seventh of her career, was released just before Christmas 2005 and has sold 2.7 million copies in the U.S. to date. More than that, the less tortured music of "The Breakthrough" has led to eight Grammy nominations for Blige, more than any other artist, for Sunday's award gala at Staples Center. The acknowledgment from her peers made the notoriously intense Blige a bit giddy, but the real thrill is the sustained ovation from her fans.

"I know that I made the connection with my fans again with this music and I was really concerned about that because I am the same as my fans, they are me and I am them. We have lived through so much together. It's really humbled me and reminded me of how I have gotten as far as I have. You don't get here by being a jerk; you get here by being humble, you get here by having integrity, by loving yourself, by loving God and by loving your people."

In conversation, Blige is almost evangelical in her description of her quest for personal growth and, oddly, can sound like an emergency-room nurse diagnosing life's wounds and pitfalls. "Sometimes, you think you're healed but if that scab is infected, you have to rip it off and let it go and bleed again. It's the path to real, truthful healing. You have to let that pus out."

You don't want to even hear about Blige's comparisons of drug use to doing the backstroke in a toilet. But you can forgive her triage talk and lunch-canceling metaphors. The darkest corners of her life -- the chaotic childhood with a family that stamped on her ambitions, the abusive relationships with men, lost days in cocaine and alcohol fumes -- have been the raw material that has made her music so compelling.

Many of her albums have been like black-box recordings of her personal crashes. Listening to the older albums now, she says, it's "like ministering to myself." She says she can't believe how desperate, suicidal and lost she once was, but in listening to the old songs she hears one other backbeat: "I hear how much I was ready to live too."

"The Breakthrough" finds her in a more centered place, but it is hardly a collection of musical buttercups and rainbows. Sure, "Be Without You," which is up for four Grammys, including record and song of the year (the first acknowledges the best complete recording, the latter is a songwriting honor), is a testimonial from a place of emotional calm, but tracks such as "Enough Cryin" and "Baggage" will sound familiar themes to the mostly female fans who have found in Blige a siren of their own frustrations with men and relationships.

Sitting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Blige began to get misty as she talked about the encounters through the years with fans who have confided in her their tales of prison, rape, addiction and suicide attempts and how her music, especially such songs as "No More Drama," became a soundtrack to their healing. When she described a 13-year-old girl who had been mauled by a dog and heard in the song a call to keep living, the singer dabbed at her eyes. "I'm honored to hear these stories and what the music has meant to people."

Not surprisingly, Blige's flinty resolve and heart-wrenching honesty make her a bit of an outsider in contemporary music. The urban music of the moment is dominated by the leering lyrics and materialism of the Dirty South sound and there is little room for reflection in a scene that is satisfied with a shelf life as short as a ring tone.

"Something has got to change, there has to be more than this" -- she straightened her back and wagged her elbows like a crowing rapper, a pose that instantly evokes countless videos with scowling teenagers weighed down by gold chains -- "I mean, how much of that do we really need? Something is missing."

Blige spoke in an almost maternal tone about the approach of her album, saying she got top producers of the moment to come on board and lace the album with hip-hop beats of the present to attract young listeners who, once they lived with the album, might hear the deeper messages inside the lyrics. "You have to give a song or two to get them in, but then you try to do something a bit more."

The singer has been winning over plenty of people in recent years. Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammys show since 1980, remembers that when Blige performed her song "No More Drama" at rehearsals for 2002, jaws dropped throughout the venue.

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