Mary J. Blige is the queen of hip hop soul. The singer-turned-actress joined the music scene in the 1990s, and the industry hasn’t been the same since. With her unique style, solid songwriting skills, and emotionally-charged vocals, Blige has carved a path out for herself in the pop culture landscape and has stayed the course in the decades since.
But even though Blige is beloved by millions of devoted fans, life didn’t start out so easy for her. In fact, she’s had to continually face adversity in her life, whether it’s in her personal affairs or in the public sphere. But at the end of the day, Blige is a master class in taking all that life throws at you, processing it, and emerging on the other side thanks to her innate grace and perseverance.
So what was Blige like before she was crowned the hip hop queen of soul? Where did she start out, and where does she hope to be in the future? And how has she changed from her early days? This is the stunning transformation of Mary J. Blige.
Mary J. Blige grew up in the projects in Yonkers
To say that Mary J. Blige had it easy growing up would be a lie, as she certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Rather, Mary J. Blige has a tragic real-life story and was raised in the public housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y., mostly by a single mother. “I always forget to mention that my dad is a Vietnam vet,” she shared in an interview with Vulture. “So by the time I was born, he was out of Vietnam, but he wasn’t all the way there. I guess him leaving us at an early age was a part of him wanting to escape a lot of things.”
But despite the hardships that come with poverty, Blige was an avid fan of music, which helped her to shape her identity. “Everything was about how you look. Although you didn’t have, it was about how you looked,” she recalled in an interview with The Guardian. “So when Salt-N-Pepa had the blonde hair, it was about that, it was about the sneakers, it was about the jackets. Then I became Mary J Blige, and it was really about that.” And that’s how it all began.
Mary J. Blige is a survivor
With her father gone and her single mother working as a nurse for long hours, Mary J. Blige and one of her sisters were left to their devices in the projects. That wasn’t exactly the safest of scenarios, as Blige once told Oprah Winfrey (via Vulture) that “there was a lot of ‘You better get upstairs’ if you were by yourself” because otherwise you could be sexually assaulted.
Unfortunately, Blige was targeted by a family friend and became a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at a very young age. This experience led her to later turn to drugs and alcohol for comfort, in order to block out what had happened to her. “I just wanted to forget that episode from five, and then I wanted to forget what happened at nine, and then I wanted to forget what happened at 16,” she confessed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “And then I wanted to forget everything that just kept happening.”
Mary J. Blige dropped out of high school
In addition to dealing with the trauma of sexual abuse and the weight of poverty, Mary J. Blige also struggled to connect with her family members. “When I was a girl, relatives teased me about my feet, my lips, my butt, the way I walked,” she revealed in an interview with O, The Oprah Magazine. “They said, ‘You’ll never finish high school.’ And I wanted them to love me so much.” She added that she would do whatever she could to get their approval, such as smoke a cigarette for attention, but Blige never found real connection — those she sought to be close to already had their favorites.
Because of all of the stress in Blige’s life, she wound up cultivating a defensive attitude in order to cope with her surroundings. She also struggled to find academic success, despite her best efforts. “Before I dropped out of high school, the principal once asked me why I’d gotten in trouble,” she continued. “I said, ‘Because I don’t take no s**t.’ One night earlier, I’d heard my mother say that very sentence — and it was that attitude that later destroyed me.”
It was Mary J. Blige's raw talent that got her career started
While there was indeed a lot of chaos in Mary J. Blige’s young life, underneath it all, there was raw talent and a deep love of music; that was what led her to start singing. By the time Blige was 7 years old, she had already won a talent show, in which she sang an Aretha Franklin song, according to an interview with Vulture. But that was the beginning of her now-legendary musical journey.
Then, when Blige was 17 years old, she went to the mall and recorded herself singing Anita Baker. Remember this was long before there were cell phones and YouTube, so getting yourself out there was much trickier than it is today. But as luck would have it, the tape made its way into the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, who passed it onto a co-worker who had a deal with Uptown Records. The record company was impressed with what they heard, and, shortly thereafter, they signed Blige with a record deal of her own.
Sean Combs saw a real star in Mary J. Blige
On the heels of getting signed to Uptown Records, Mary J. Blige quickly caught the attention of one of the most in-demand producers around: Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy or P. Diddy. Right away he could tell she wasn’t the usual diva, as she had tomboyish ways and a genuine backstory, and he knew she was going to be a star. “What I loved about Puff is he immediately saw [me],” she gushed in an interview with Vulture. “I mean, instead of a tight dress, he put a baggy Armani suit on me with some Teflon boots.” Thus a queen was born.
Combs didn’t let Blige rest on her laurels, either, as he pushed her to be her best. “I was never as ambitious as he is,” she continued. “He wanted it so much more. And so because he would push, I would push. I was a dreamer and wanted things, but I never was as ambitious as Puff.” Still, the collaboration proved to be a success, as her debut album was born of those sessions. And what a debut it was.
Mary J. Blige's debut album changed the hip hop game
On July 22, 1992, Mary J. Blige released her debut album, What’s the 411?. By all metrics it was a massive success, with several hit singles like “Real Love,” “You Remind Me,” “Love No Limit,” and “Reminisce,” as noted by Vibe. Selling 3 million copies, What’s the 411? also catapulted Blige into super stardom, and it cemented her as hip hop’s newest “It” girl.
But while the album was a game changer for the hip hop industry, Blige didn’t comprehend the magnanimity of it all at the time. “I wasn’t conscious that I was doing something different in that moment,” she confessed in an interview with NPR. “I just knew that I loved hip-hop and R&B, and I was doing what I loved. And I didn’t realize what we had done ’til later, like ‘Wow, we created a whole genre of music.'”
Blige also had a hard time adjusting to newfound fame, and she self-medicated with drugs and alcohol to handle both her celebrity and her past. Still, there’s no doubt that the music she was making was phenomenal.
My Life is Mary J. Blige's magnum opus
Two years after releasing What’s the 411?, Mary J. Blige dropped her second album, My Life. With Sean Combs at her side and her love life in shambles, Blige summoned all of that pain and channeled it into her music, the result being an R&B masterpiece. “I didn’t know what it would do or how successful it would be,” she wrote in a post on her Instagram page. “I was in so much pain and was ready to check out and I know I needed to say these things to get them off my chest.”
The album was a smashing success, dominating the charts and connecting Blige to fans who found release in her songwriting. “I released this album to the world and it opened the doors to people who were in pain just like me,” she continued. “It touched so many people lives in the world and it gave me confirmation that I wasn’t alone…”
All in all, My Life spent eight weeks at the top of the charts, had a number of hit singles, and officially crowned Blige the hip hop queen of soul, according to Vibe.
For a while, Mary J. Blige seemed super happy in her marriage
On Dec. 7, 2003, it looked like Mary J. Blige had finally found the real love she’d been looking for, when she married record producer Kendu Isaacs, who also became her manager, as noted by People. The couple married in a low-key ceremony at her home in New Jersey, with only 50 people in attendance and a family-prepared, home-cooked feast. The pair even skipped out on a honeymoon, as they were preparing to go on tour for Blige’s sixth studio album, Love & Life – sounds like they were busy!
After that, Blige appeared to be happy and content, crediting her husband with helping her cope with life and become a better person. According to Vulture, on an episode of Behind the Music, she said that she “felt safe for the first time” with Isaacs and “had never felt truly loved” before him. Blige was also lifted out of a deep depression, and she found within herself a newfound strength. And, for a while, all was well.
Mary J. Blige hit a rough patch in the 2010s
Although Mary J. Blige had some good years during the 2000s — she regularly released records, developed her acting career, and had the honor of singing at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration — by the time the mid-2010s rolled around, things were getting rough. She appeared in a Burger King commercial that was critiqued for being racially insensitive and was thought to have made her one of several musicians to ruin their careers in a matter of seconds. This was then followed by the revelation that she reportedly owed millions to the IRS, which was extremely hard on her. “I had the Burger King commercial, then my taxes and my business were all over the TV, and then it was this, then it was that,” she lamented in an interview with The Guardian. “I was like, ‘What the hell is going on? Have I been abandoned?'”
Blige is the first to admit that she could have done better, but she took the opportunity to find a silver lining and run with it. “It’s not the things I did right that informed me,” she continued. “It’s all the mistakes I made that are helping me to better my life. Because that was a disaster.” She added that she wasn’t sure if she “was going to make it.”
Mary J. Blige got sober to save her life
At some point along the way in her journey, Mary J. Blige made the decision to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. First came the realization that there’s often a reason for abusing those substances. “We numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol and people and shopping and s**t, to cover up what’s really going on inside,” she explained in an interview with Self. “You’re taking drugs so you can go out and feel courageous, or go out and feel beautiful or whatever. You’re doing it to cover up something.“
Blige also began to realize that, if she kept going the way she was, it wasn’t going to end well for her. “I’ve seen visions of what I would look like if I kept doing drugs,” she continued. “If I saw myself almost dying, or if I almost died, or almost O.D.’d, why would I do that again?”
And though in the past she gave a lot of the credit for her sobriety to her spouse, today she knows that it’s all hers. “He did not deserve that credit,” she added.
When Mary J. Blige got divorced, she turned to forgiveness to heal
Although Mary J. Blige’s marriage to Kendu Isaacs had seemed so promising in the beginning, Blige filed for divorce from him in 2016, after 13 years of marriage. As Blige tells it, Isaacs was unfaithful to her (via People), and the fallout from her marriage made her cautious. “People are watching,” she revealed in an interview with Self. “[So] how do I come out of this unburned, unscathed?”
As it turned out, the solution for Blige wasn’t to stew in her anger or to drown her sorrows. Rather she took the high road and opted to cultivate peace. “I had to forgive myself for being so stupid,” she continued. “I had to forgive him for everything he did.” That’s not to say that her relationship with Isaacs didn’t scar her, however. “I’m not happy about a lot of things,” she confessed in an interview with Variety. “I thought someone loved me, right? Turns out, he was a con artist and he didn’t, and now he’s coming after me for all my money.”
The divorce was finalized in 2018, and Blige became free from a partnership that no longer served her.
Starring in Mudbound helped Mary J. Blige realize she's beautiful
In 2017, the world finally got to see just how much of a talented actress Mary J. Blige is when she starred in the film Mudbound as Florence Jackson. And for the role, Blige had to go as au natural as possible, something that was not easy for her to do. “I’m used to my nails now, and I’m addicted to lashes,” she explained in an interview with Vulture. “I’m Mary J. Blige. I mean, like, this is what I do. I wear wigs, I wear bob wigs.”
But on set there were no wigs for Blige to wear and no way for her to disguise herself as anyone but her authentic self — which turned out to be transformative for her. “I had to completely strip down to my own natural hair texture, which I’ve always been afraid of,” she continued. “People were saying how beautiful I was. I didn’t know I was that beautiful for real.” You are, Mary!
Mary J. Blige snagged an interesting part in Netflix's The Umbrella Academy
In 2019, viewers of the Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy were pleasantly surprised to see that Mary J. Blige had stepped into the role of Cha-Cha, a time-traveling assassin. Blige spent a total of five months on set in Toronto to work on the series, inhabiting a role that she was fascinated by. “She didn’t have a conscience, she didn’t care about anything,” she shared in an interview with GQ. “She was very focused on what her job was — and that was to kill people.”
Blige also appreciated that Cha-Cha was very much all about Cha-Cha and not interested in the frivolities of life. “She was a business woman and she was all about her business,” she continued. “She could fight and she could shoot and she could hang out with guys and be tougher than them.”
Mary J. Blige is committed to caring for her inner child
With all that Mary J. Blige has accomplished in her life, many people have been curious as to whether she’ll ever have children. But Blige has other priorities she has to attend to first, and that includes nurturing her own inner child. “Right now it’s about me and little Mary. It’s like that’s my baby, my little girl,” she revealed in an interview with Self. “She needs my help…and I’m not going to ever let anybody hurt her again.”
It’s not that Blige isn’t happy with herself or that she doesn’t love her friends, her family, her fans, and her nephews and nieces. But any mothering Blige is doing is, for now, focused on herself and the spirit within. “She needs to live, she needs to play,” she continued. “She doesn’t mind her life being used to help someone else. But I have to take care of her.”
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