Mary J. Blige: The Queen of Hip Hop Soul

Mary J. Blige is known for her vocal talent and has been dubbed as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. She managed to bring together hip-hop and R&B to create a whole new musical style that generations of music lovers continue to enjoy. She released 13 studio albums, and eight of them got multi-platinum worldwide sales. The singer won nine Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, and twelve Billboard awards. And that’s just the beginning.

Mary J Blige at an event in 2019

Photo by David Buchnan / Variety / Shutterstock

Although she was clearly born to become a star, things weren’t always easy for the singer. Her family didn’t have much money, and she dropped out of high school when she was 16. Unfortunately, her relationship with her family members was pretty rocky, and she never felt like home was a safe place to be. So how did she become the Queen of Hip Hop Soul?

This is an account of the life and career of Mary J. Blige.

Humble Beginnings

On January 11th, 1971, Mary Jane Blige was welcomed into the world. She was born in The Bronx, New York, to a middle-class musical family. Her dad was an aspiring jazz musician, and her mom worked as a nurse. When she was a little girl, her dad started giving the future-star singing lessons, but in 1980, her parents got divorced.

Mary J Blige performing in 1993

Mary J Blige in 1993. Photo by Pat Johnson / Shutterstock

That’s when things began to get hard for Mary J. Blige. Not only was she abandoned by her father, but she had a strained relationship with her mother. Her earlier years weren’t easy, but from the moment she was born, Blige was destined to become a performer. She had that rare star power combined with raw talent, and she was born to shine.

A Hectic Household

Mary J. Blige grew up in Yonkers, New York, in a house with her mom, sister, two aunts and five cousins. Although the household was hectic, the singer told Telegraph she was always surrounded by music. She told Telegraph that growing up, soul artists like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle were always playing.

Mary J Blige and Aretha Franklin in 2003.

Mary J Blige and Aretha Franklin. Photo by Matt Baron / BEI / Shutterstock

They lived in a drug-riddled neighborhood with no money, but sometimes unconditional love and a strong family unit can overcome these difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, for Mary J. Blige, growing up in that house was anything but rosy. She didn’t feel like she had a real support system and people who truly cared about her in her life.

“Very Mean People”

The singer used some harsh words when she described her family members in an interview with the Guardian. She said, “The environment that I was in – they’ll be mad at me, but it’s the truth – they were angry, hateful, jealous, ignorant, prideful people.” Blige called out her aunts, in particular, calling them “very mean people.”

Mary J Blige in 2001

Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

She also had a strained relationship with her mother, Cora, who also had dreams about becoming a singer. Blige explained, “It might be that she’s living vicariously through me, but I believe she’s gotten real bitter about it. It’s probably why we never really got along.” However, it appears they patched things up, and their relationship is better now.

Only One Mama

In 2017, it seemed the mother-daughter got passed everything and left their issued behind them. During VH1’s Dear Mama event, Blige gave a heartwarming speech dedicated to her mama. “I’m happy that I chose you to be my mom because you gave me everything that I love about me.” She chooses to ignore the negative and look at the glass as half full.

Mary J Blige with her mother Cora at VH1’s Dear Mama event in 2017.

Mary J Blige with her mother Cora at VH1’s Dear Mama event in 2017. Photo by Broadimage / Shutterstock

Mary J. Blige realized that she only has one mom and wanted to have some sort of relationship there. She understands that it must have been hard for her single mom to raise two kids in a household filled with ten people. She didn’t mention her “mean aunts,” so her relationship with them is still unclear.

Who’s Your Daddy?

In 2002, a reporter named Caroline Sullivan remembered an experience she had with Mary J Blige years earlier, back when the singer was still getting used to fame. Sullivan asked the seemingly innocent question: “Is there a Mr. Mary J Blige?” The singer thought that the reporter was referring to her father, Thomas, and left the room.

Mary J Blige at an event in November 2001

Photo by Matt Baron / BEI / Shutterstock

It was later revealed that when Mary J Blige was a little girl, Thomas walked out on the family. For years, the singer didn’t even get the chance to meet him; but when they finally saw each other in person, Thomas was a pre-occupied failed musician. According to The Guardian, “His focus was all to do with his being a washed-up bass player who never made it, and with her having somehow stolen a march on him.”

No More Drama

Thomas had dreams of becoming a musician himself, so when he saw his daughter’s success, he appeared to be jealous. Even though he wasn’t there for her growing up, Mary J. Blige does credit her dad for teaching her how to “hold notes” and “how to harmonize.” On her earlier records, Blige even went as far as to thank him in the credits of her album sleeves.

Mary J Blige at an event wearing a beige dress in 2002.

Photo by Richard Young / Shutterstock

In 2001, the singer released the album, No More Drama, and The Guardian pointed out that Thomas’s name was missing. This just looked like another shift in their rocky relationship that already seemed non-existent. The status of their current relationship is unclear, but things were never steady between the father-daughter.

High School Drop Out

Mary J. Blige never graduated from high school. During an interview with The Washington Post, the singer admitted that she “didn’t really care about getting an education,” and according to CBS, she dropped out altogether in 11th grade. Unfortunately, her reading was on an eighth-grade level, which caused problems for her throughout her career.

Mary J Blige performing

Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

Blige explained: “It hurts a lot when you cannot really comprehend what a person is saying in a meeting or you don’t even understand what you’re reading in your contract.” However, in 2011, the singer decided to take matters into her own hands. If she wanted an education, she knew nobody else could do it for her.

College Rumors

The singer decided to prioritize her education and earn her GED. She said: “What I came to understand about education is that it is the key to life.” Then, there were rumors that she was going to attend Howard University – the singer allegedly started this rumor. Apparently, after an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, Blige told fans (off-camera) at New York’s Central Park that’s she got accepted to college and was planning to start classes in 2014.

Mary J Blige at the MTV video music awards wearing white jeans and a white vest

Photo by Matt Baron / BEI / Shutterstock

The news was shocking, particularly to the university. Reliable voices from The Washington Post reported that they asked the school for a statement and shot down the rumor that the singer was accepted to the historically black campus. However, they did leave an open door, saying: “We are happy to work with Ms. Blige on completing the formal process for admission.”

A Star in the Projects

Like many other musicians, Mary J. Blige pours her pain into her music. During an interview with Makers, she revealed how her life completely changed with her debut album, ‘What’s the 411?’ At the time, Blige was still living in the projects in Yonkers, N.Y, with her family, and for the first time in her life, her neighbors started fist-bumping her after hearing her on the radio.

Mary J Blige at Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 2003.

Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

She wasn’t really used to that. Blige said: “But, people in the neighborhood wanted to kill you for it. So you plucked this girl from the hood and threw her in all of this stuff, and so she’s going to survive the only way she knows how.”

Poured Depression into Her Music

She went on to explain how the early stages of her career made her feel like she was “in hell,” but the singing might have saved her at the end. “I was like, Woah! You have to sing for your life,” she said. Blige then went on to record ‘My Life’ – her sophomore album. She described it as a “call for help” and stated: “I didn’t think anybody would pay attention to my call for help, but my fan base did.”

Mary J Blige and Stevie Wonder at a tribute event for Ray Charles

Mary J Blige and Stevie Wonder, 2004. Photo by Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

The best thing that came out of that album was the “depression and all this oppression” she was struggling in her real-life at the time. When she put her gut-wrenching pain into her lyrics, she became a force to be reckoned with in the music world.

A Coping Mechanism

After trying to deal with difficult events going on in her life, Mary J. Blige turned to drugs, like many others before her. Substance abuse is common with musicians because they carry around so much pain. During an interview with Los Angeles Confidential in 2013, the singer opened up about her addictions. “So many dark moments – which all added up, and that’s what sprung in the drug addiction, trying to numb it all with the drugs.”

Mary J Blige at a Vanity Fair part in 2005

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But drugs weren’t the singer’s only vice. She got over her cocaine habit but replaced it with alcohol to help “cover up guilt. Shame. Abandonment.” In 2012, she received a horrific slap in the face when her friend and fellow singer passed away. That friend? Whitney Houston.

How Whitney Houston’s Death Affected Her

When Whitney Houston died, it was a huge wake-up call for Mary J. Blige. She said, “Whitney Houston’s death really affected me. Her death is another reason I stopped [drinking].” The singer was serious about her recovery but didn’t go to rehab. Instead, she felt she needed to turn to a higher power.

Whitney Houston, Faith Evans, Monica, and Mary J Blige at a party in 1999.

Whitney Houston, Faith Evans, Monica, and Mary J Blige, 1999. Photo by Busacca / Mediapunch / Shutterstock

She explained, “I believe that anything man himself can do for me, God can do for me in a greater way. I decided to pray and seek God on my own. I just stayed in The Word. And it worked.” Turning to God really worked for the singer. All that matters is that she recovered, no matter how she got there.

Fighting Her Addiction

Many people were amused by Mary’s interesting but unorthodox method to recover from substance abuse and alcoholism. Even religious, God-fearing people need to get help from rehabs or professionals every once and a while. As it turned out, this approach really helped manage her addiction, but the singer revealed that she might drink again. This wasn’t really a permanent thing.

Mary J Blige in 2012

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When Blige appeared on The Wendy Williams Show in 2012, she admitted that she didn’t give up booze forever. She explained, “I don’t need alcohol to get me out of a depression or get me out of a bad moment, but I have occasional drinks with my friends.” At least she is no longer using substances as a form of escapism.

Her Rocky Relationship with “K-Ci”

Mary J. Blige fell in love with another musician who was also immersed in the same music genre as her- R&B mixed with hip hop beats Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey from the R&B quartet Jodeci. The romance between these two love-birds seemed like the melodies genuinely merged these two artists together in a perfect match. It was like watching two people fall in love through their musical connection.

K-Ci and JoJo Hailey at an event in 2006

Photo by Picture Perfect / Shutterstock

This union may have been perfect when it came to music, and their careers and the couple’s rocky relationship lasted a total of 12 years, according to Essence. But in a taped interview, the singer admitted that their relationship turned toxic. Unfortunately, he was disrespectful and abusive.

Not Getting Married

During one specific incident, Blige and Jodeci were in London for a show and separate on-camera interviews for the same TV show. Blige was unaware that during his segment, he discussed their engagement with the audience. The show ran a clip from the segment where K-Ci tells the crowd, “K-Ci is not getting married!”

Mary J Blige

Photo by Fairchild Archive / Penske Media / Shutterstock

When the camera cut back to Blige, it was clear she was hurt and angry. She clapped back in the footage, saying: “No, we’re not getting married now.” After that, Blige still tried to make it work. She said, “When I was supposed to let go, I started feeling like, nah, I can’t let these women take what I know I worked so hard for, what I cried over every night and what I actually fought and [was] abused by.”

Cheating with the Protégée

In 2003, Mary J. Blige tied the knot with Martin “Kendu” Isaacs. She hired him as her manager, and things seemed to be going great… until they weren’t. The soul singer filed for divorce in 2016, citing irreconcilable differences, and the divorce was messy. The couple was bickering over everything, from spousal support payments to cheating rumors.

Mary J Blige and Kendu Isaacs laughing and hugging for a photo

Photo by Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

In Strength of a Woman, Blige’s VH1 documentary, she spoke to fellow singer Ne-Yo – who was producing songs on her new album – about the cheating allegations. She claimed the woman who came between them was LaNeah “Starshell” Menzies, her own protégée! It should be noted that Menzies’s name was bleeped out, but still… talk about betrayal.

A Convo with Ne-Yo

In the documentary, Blige expressed how hurt and embarrassed she felt: “All these years have come to this, like, you didn’t even pick me, you picked somebody else. That s**t is humiliating. It hurt real bad. But… they got beds, we gotta lay in it.” She went on to tell Ne-Yo, “And just so we’re clear… do not let her Starshell anywhere near what you’re doing for me, because she’s the reason for all of this s**t.

Mary J Blige and Ne-Yo

Photo by Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

According to TMZ, Starshell was listed in Mary’s divorce petition. The singer claimed that during her marriage, her estranged husband spent over $420,000 on “travel charges,” but apparently, the money was actually spent on his mistress.

Suicidal Thoughts

The difficulties Mary J. Blige faced throughout her life almost got the best of her. At a certain point, the singer told CNN that she struggled with suicidal thoughts. In a candid interview, Mary J. said: “I guess it was something in me did want to die – you know, I guess my spirit didn’t want to die, but my physical body definitely was at some point was like I gotta get out of here.”

Mary J Blige and 50 Cent in 2005

Photo by Alex Berliner / BEI / Shutterstock

Thankfully, her inner self snapped her out of it. She continued, “My physical body was contemplating suicide, and all this other crazy stuff and my spirit is what saved me, I believe.”

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Empowering Other Women

Back in 2009, Mary J. Blige co-founded the Foundation for the Advancement of Woman Now (FFAWN), in Yonkers. She created the center so that women and young girls would have a safe place to go. They receive help, life-skills, and gain techniques to help them feel more empowered. Mary J. Blige really holds this organization close to her heart.

Mary J Blige and Trey Songz in 2011

Mary J Blige and Trey Songz. Photo by Fairchild Archive / Penske Media / Shutterstock

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the foundation, there was a layer of sadness underneath all that excitement. The singer told CNN that she felt compelled to help women, especially after the things she experienced. It didn’t really feel like an option for her, it was something she just felt she needed to do.

Compelled to Help Women

She stated, “As a child, I [saw] women really, really suffer terrible, terrible situations, and I vowed as a child to want to do something – anything – that can help them have better self-esteem so that they don’t have to be subjected to men that wanted to kill them.” She went on to explain how she had mixed feelings about the opening ceremony.

Mary J Blige, Katie Couric, and Chaka Khan in 2006

Mary J Blige, Katie Couric, and Chaka Khan in 2006. Photo by Carolyn Contino / BEI / Shutterstock

The singer expressed, “it was happy and sad because you know the very place where I’ve seen so many women suffer is the sad part, and the vert place that I suffered is the sad part.” She continued, “But the happy part is I’m back to help. I’m back doing what I dreamed to do. My dream is coming true.”

Keeps Some Secrets

In October 2019, Mary J. Blige told Self how she coped with the tragedies in her life. The singer said, “it took a lot of prayers.” She expresses her emotions through music, where she reveals her dark past, but there are some secrets that the public will never know… and for a good reason: “Everybody thinks they know everything, but nobody really knows,” she explained.

Mary J Blige in 2006

Photo by Matt Baron / BEI / Shutterstock

“You only know what I tell you, and I don’t tell everything.” She continued, “As public as I am, I’m really private… I’ll give you the juice and the truth, but not the stuff that’s going to kill me… I grew up in a neighborhood where we couldn’t tell everything. It would kill us. So you ‘know’ but you don’t [know]. you know?”

Opening Up About Her Struggles

She has a point. I mean, if you really think about it, people really only know what others want them to know. Although privacy can be difficult when your life is in the public eye, celebrities still only reveal information they want you to know. Of course, secrets can leak, but that comes with the territory.

Mary J Blige performing

Photo by Mc Films / Shutterstock

With that said, Blige is aware that speaking openly about her struggles helped her connect with her fans and hopes talking about it can help others heal. She said, “The relationship that I’ve built with my fans – just because I’m Mary J. Blige, and I’m a big superstar I’m going to start denying them out therapy? Nah. This stuff happens so that we can talk.”

Life-Changer Cover

Mary J Blige was a promising 21-year-old singer who paved the way for contemporary R&B today. Back in 1992, the star released her album “What’s The 411?” and it was a complete game-changer. Blige combined R&B hooks and hip-hop beats, and introduced her music style in the world, along with her clever producer named Puff Daddy.

Mary J Blige in 2006

Photo by Picture Perfect / Shutterstock

When Blige was just 18 years old, she was the first female who was signed to Uptown, a hip hop label founded by Andre Harrell. Harrell was previously a VP at Def Jam, who heard Blige sing ‘Caught Up in the Rapture’ (Anita Baker’s 1986 hit), and he signed her immediately in 1989.

New Hip-Hop Soul Genre

That’s where Blige met an intern named Sean Combs, who later became a producer that we know as Puff Daddy. He was in charge of the new performers that were signed, Blige and Jodeci- the R&B quartet. At the time, Combs was prepared to take Teddy’ Riley’s ‘New Jack Swing’ and adding smooth R&B melodies over classic hip hop beats, to appeal to the new generation.

Mary J Blige holding all of her Billboard Music Awards in 2006

Photo by Picture Perfect / Shutterstock

This music fusion resulted in the new hybrid genre, hip hop soul. The music style was evident in on his remix for ‘Come & Talk to Me’ by Jodeci, and ‘Real Love,’ Mary J Blige’s breakout hit that showed off the singer’s incredible vocals over Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin’ beats.

Puff Brought the Sound

It was clear that Blige had talent, but she also had more than that. She was the complete package. Along with her unbelievable vocals, Blige was a hard worker, had a good attitude, a unique style, and the type of star power you can’t teach. It was like she was born to be a star.

Mary J Blige, Sean Combs, and Cassie Ventura in May 2017

Photo by Taylor Jewell / Vogue / Shutterstock

In 2016, on the Rap Radar Podcast, Harrell recalled the collaboration between Blige and Combs. “Puff came with the sound. He came with the hip-hop, and Mary came with the soul. That was the hip-hop soul. Attitude plus style plus talent was really what Uptown Records was about. We really wouldn’t sign a person who had talent but didn’t have style or attitude.”

The Real Deal

Mary J Blige was exactly what the industry needed at the time. She had the vocal intensity, street style, and swagger that the male-dominated rap world craved back in 1991. At the time, hip-hop and new jack swing were reaching the pop charts after hits like Motownphilly (by Boyz II Men’s) and Let The Beat Hit ‘Em (by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam).

Mary J Blige

Photo by David Buchan / Variety / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, contemporary R&B music was mainly power ballads performed by outstanding belters like Lisa Fischer, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. In 1992, Blige’s album, ‘What’s the 411?’ went triple platinum, and the singer was dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. The album sold over 3.4 million copies and included hit singles like ‘You Remind Me’ and ‘Real Love.’

The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul

The album continued to dominate rap, soul, and pop radio for the next year, followed by a string of remixes. Many people credited Combes for the singer’s success. He carefully crafted Blige’s image of the cool-girl-next-door and filled the album with strategic samples and good production. It appeared as though it was all her producer.

Mary J Blige performing

Photo by Larry Marano / Shutterstock

However, it the end, it was the Blige’s vocal abilities and the way people felt something when they heard her music that gained the singer listeners, loyalty, fans, and success. Not everyone can speak to people’s hearts through their music, and Mary J Blige has a very special way of doing that. That’s what makes her a star.

Vulnerable and Strong

R&B music was known for its balladry, but Blige brought something a little different to the heart of it. With the sense of realism that was felt through her music, Blige turned into the patron saint of the broken-hearted for generations to come. Even though she was vulnerable, Blige was no softy or a pushover.

Mary J Blige in 2019

Photo by Gregory Pace / Shutterstock

In 2005, Blige told The Guardian that she had no idea how successful her pain and struggles could make her: “I had no idea that my personal pain would create such a big fan base. Everything that was bringing me down was everything that rose me up.” I guess it makes sense. If you think about it, pain is the one thing everybody could relate to.

Exploding with Confidence

Blige was able to portray self-awareness and emotional maturity through her music when she was only 21 years old; it really made both male and female audiences resonate with her. Plus, it certainly didn’t hurt that she debuted in the New York-driven hip-hop culture during that time and featured 10 samples, numerous covers, and influences, such as Chaka Khan, Grover Washington Jr., Ohio Players, Grand Puba, Busta Rhymes, Biz Markie, Schoolly D, and so many more.

Mary J Blige performing

Photo by Frank Micelotta / Picturegroup / Shutterstock

She exploded with confidence when she came out with her first track ‘Leave A Message,’ featuring Busta Rhymes, and the album was praised by numerous different artists. And the title song is a call back to the singer’s earlier days when she worked at a 4-1-1 telephone operator.

A Successful New Sound

Mary J Blige took us back to her years as a 411 operator and broke it down for the audience. Without her break down, the song would have been a slow ballad. It would have probably sounded amazing, but the hip hop brought a unique, fun, different vibe to her music. It really helped her stand out as the special performer she is.

Mary J Blige accepting an award in 2019

Photo by Michael Buckner / Variety / Shutterstock

‘Reminisce’ is the MC Lyte-sampling song on the album includes uptempo and new jack flavors showing off Blige’s incredible raw vocals. Her talent id evident, and she proved that she doesn’t need to beat out anyone to impress. Her voice, soul, and stage presence says it all.

Real Love

‘Real Love’ ended up being her big breakout song, despite not being the title track. When it made it to number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was her first top ten pop hit! The song has become a boom-bap anthem for years to come. Just one year later, the remix from the song also topped the chart and helped put a little known artist named Biggie Smalls on the map- otherwise known as the Notorious B.I.G.

Mary J Blige at an event in 2019

Photo by David Buchnan / Variety / Shutterstock

The other big single that came from that album was ‘You Remind Me.’ The song proved that Blige’s vocal chips can match the best of them. Her soul sound was very different from singers at the time who were groomed to sing pop tunes from a young age. Blige brought something a little more real with her native New-Yorker inflection and new jack swagger to create a whole new style of music.

Critical Acclaim

When Mary J Blige covered ‘Sweet Thing’ by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, she won over some of the most critical skeptics. Her version of the soul classic enticed a whole new generation when she told future lovers, “don’t be so shady.” Blige also experimented on the album with her jazz-fused single ‘Love No Limit,’ and clearly, it was a good gamble.

Mary J Blige and Chaka Khan

Mary J Blige and Chaka Khan. Photo by Jim Smeal / BEI / Shutterstock

Her album was very different than what being played on urban radio during that time. The singer later partnered up with K-Ci Hailey from Uptown labelmate Jodeci on the duet, ‘I Don’t Want to do Anything.’ The slow track sparked rumors that the two were involved, especially after their appearance on MTV Unplugged. However, their stormy romance hadn’t started yet.

What’s the Closing Track?

On the final song of her ‘What’s The 411?’ album, the singer got to clap back at every corner cat caller played by Grand Puba with, “don’t have no time for no wham bam, thank you ma’am!” followed by a short cover of ‘Very Special’ by Debra Law. In just a few short bars, the singer proved she was really something special.

Mary J Blige in 2019

Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock

She isn’t just a performer with incredible vocals and swagger. She is the real deal. Mary J Blige was able to create a whole new style of music that people have been enjoying for generations. Her talent can’t be denied, and she truly is a part of history. Blige is a musical legend, and her influence on the music world has inspired many soul artists and musicians.