Mary J Blige: “I’m More Than Just The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul”

Don’t call it a comeback, but Mary J Blige has cut her illest album in years. For The London Sessions, the Queen of hip-hop soul set up camp in the UK, collaborating with everybody from the nu-garage Disclosure to soulsters Sam Smith and Emile Sandé to urban producer Naughty Boy.

It all started when Blige added vocals to Disclosure’s F For You (which Howard Lawrence initially sung) and the remix blew up. Backed by her new label, Capitol Records, the New Yorker determined to further explore the surging UK bass soul scene and capitalise on the buzz with her 13th LP. The result is a reboot of Blige’s seminal hip-hop soul, as exemplified by the lead single Therapy, a Smith co-write. Blige’s longtime ally (and token American) Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins supervised.

It’s been a watershed year for Blige. Only a few months ago she released Think Like A Man Too, a movie spin-off album that, despite encompassing the decent ’90s r’n’b throwback Suitcase plus the Pharrell Williams-helmed See That Boy Again, was her biggest flop. But that’s history now.

The Yonkers native, her gospelly vocals honed in church, broke out with 1992’s debut What’s The 411? on Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records. Guided by upstart exec Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Blige introduced a gravelly street soul constructed from beats and samples, with a flygirl’s fashion styling to match. But it was in My Life that she created a classic. Blige sang passionately about her own personal “drama” arising from a volatile childhood, destructive relationship with Jodeci’s Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, and issues with drugs, alcohol and sudden fame.

Blige cameoed on countless hip-hop joints, most notably Method Man’s All I Need remix, however, by her third album, 1997’s Share My World, she was ready to move into a poppier soul, and more sanguine, direction. Blige needed to heal and she took damaged female listeners with her. The singer came into her own, manifesting ghetto fabulousness.

Crucially, pre-Share My World, Blige split with the controlling Combs. The pair united for her sixth album, Love & Life, but it misfired. Blige has had other musical triumphs. She connected with the elusive Dr Dre for the noughties’ hip-hop banger Family Affair – massive in Oz. Yet her last mega-hit was 2005’s Be Without You.

In later years the multi-Grammy winner has had to negotiate tricky industry trends, such as EDM’s urban revolution. Nonetheless, with The London Sessions Blige has reclaimed her street cred and in the meantime has established herself as an actor.

Blige portrayed Justice in 2012’s Hollywood musical Rock Of Ages and popped up in Ghost Whisperer. She was originally attached to play Nina Simone in a much-publicised bio-pic, a role since controversially taken over by Zoe Saldana. Still, Blige’s legacy as a trailblazing soul sister is intact.

Because of Blige, Mariah Carey could reinvent herself with the ’90s’ Fantasy. Blige opened the way for those hip-hop chicks Lauryn Hill and Rihanna and, yes, the tragic Amy Winehouse and cathartic Adele. She reps an authenticity not exposed on reality TV talent shows. Indeed, Blige, now married to manager Kendu Isaacs, is a true survivor.

Watch: Mary J Blige – Therapy

MF: What is amazing about The London Sessions is how fast it must have come together, because you had another record, Think Like A Man Too, just a few months ago.

Mary J Blige: Well, it was pretty amazing because, when you’re working with all the talented people who I worked with, and just all of the special people…the chemistry was amazing. The inspiration was amazing, the creative process was amazing, because everyone was just so willing to give and they wanted me to have the best. That’s why I was able to turn it around so quickly, because we just had great chemistry. And I knew what I wanted. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I always know what I want. So that’s why I get it done pretty quick.

MF: Bobby Womack recorded his last album The Bravest Man In The Universe with British producers and he found that rejuvenating and liked their freshness and down-to-earth vibe. What attracted you to the UK scene?

MJB: The same thing. I loved their freshness and their down-to-earth vibe, but mostly I loved the fact [that] they really appreciate and embrace soul music. They really appreciate it. You could tell through all the artists who come out of there, like Amy Winehouse and even Sam [Smith] right now. They really always embraced it.

That’s one of the reasons that made me want to go there. Of course, when I discovered Disclosure and their wisdom and how much they know about deep house music and the music that I grew up on as a kid, you know, listening to how they were able to capture that, it was just unbelievable. Like, they’re 19 and 20 years old and I’m just trying to figure out, “Where did they get all this information to create such a nostalgia?” They did it and they’re excellent. I love Disclosure.

That was my big reason for going to London. That’s what created the whole London Sessions. When we put out F For You, the remix, that was the song that exploded in the UK – and it exploded in the States, even – so my whole idea was to do an EP with Disclosure and go to London to do it.

I was speaking to Steve Barnett, who’s the head of Capitol Records, about the whole idea. He said, “Well, Mary, that’s a great idea for you to go to London and work with Disclosure, but let’s have you go to London and work with, not just Disclosure only, but have you write with Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Jimmy Napes and all the talent and producers and writers out there. Have you live there, embrace the culture, and call the album The London Sessions.” I was all for it, because London has always been one of my favourite places to visit and go to. So that’s what landed me there in the first place.

MF: The UK producers always pride themselves on being easy to work with – easier than US producers, who often have whole teams. Did you find that was the case?

MJB: They were easy to work with. I don’t wanna compare them to American producers, because there are some really amazing, sweet American producers who I’ve worked with [and] who I’d work with again. But they made the process even better, the English, because they were just as sweet and down-to-earth and that helped. That made me able to work. I can’t work in uncomfortable environments and conditions. I’ve tried! But I think it’s better when your guards are down and everybody’s giving.

MF: A while ago Mariah Carey was saying that she missed the earthiness of ’90s r’n’b. She felt it was lost when everyone started doing EDM-influenced productions. Did you feel the same?

MJB: Yeah, I felt that, absolutely.

MF: Lyrically, this album is deep with songs like Therapy. What did you want to convey with The London Sessions? Because every Mary J record is like a chapter.

MJB: It conveys strength. It conveys just where I am right now as a human being. What I’ve triumphed over. What I still struggle with, and how I continue to beat the struggles and beat the doubt. It’s always on a positive level, you know, it’s always love on a positive level. It’s always [about] perseverance and how I’ve persevered through things.

Sam [Smith] has written a lot of songs on this album, too, so it’s sharing everyone’s stories. So it’s definitely a positive record, I believe. It’s very positive, because it says that we have grown and we are still here. We’re still here through perseverance.

Watch: Mary J. Blige – Right Now

MF: The London Sessions fights against the “adult contemporary” tag that is applied to a lot of r’n’b artists at a certain point in their careers. Are you conscious of that?

MJB: I’m always finding new and different ways to collaborate with another generation so that it’s a broader sound and it’s not just stuck in a box. Just like, “Okay, this is r’n’b, this is soul.” This time, yes, I did this on purpose. Just because I’ve been in this box, this r’n’b box, for so very long, this “only soul/r’n’b” box, and I wanted to do something completely different and say, “I’m more than just the queen of hip-hop soul. I’m more that just the queen of r’n’b.” I’ve always been that.

I was trying to tell y’all that when I did the song with Bono [a cover of U2’s One], when I did the song with Elton John [Deep Inside], when I did the song with Sting [Whenever I Say Your Name], when I did the song with George Michael [As]. You know, I’ve been trying to say this for a very long time. That I’m more than just a genre of music.

MF: When I think about your early years, I see a woman fighting for autonomy. You’ve almost forged your own brand of feminism – Maryism! Do you feel you’re at the place you want to be now? Are there things you’d still like to have more control over?

MJB: Well, I feel like I’m at the place that I need to be now but, yes, there are definitely some things that I would love to change. But I’m good in the place that I’m at right now. I’m growing, still. As long as I can accept where I am, I can continue to grow.

MF: You’ve also grown as an actor. How was the Rock Of Ages experience?

MJB: Man, I really enjoyed it. That was another fun moment in my life, because I worked with some amazing actors and actresses, Tom Cruise being one of them. It was an amazing experience, because I never thought I’d end up being in a movie, standing next to Tom Cruise! Everybody was so great and it was a great experience for me.

MF: You’ve been to Australia, for 2011’s Raggamuffin Festival. Is there any chance of you coming back?

MJB: Oh, well, let me just say it’s another one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to in my life. It is so beautiful. I’ve been to Sydney, it’s just gorgeous! I love how it felt out there. And, yes, I will be back. Loved it.

MF: Your My Life perfume isn’t available down here — can you make that happen?

MJB: I will definitely try!

‘The London Sessions’ is on iTunes now, and hits physical stores next Friday.

Watch: Mary J. Blige – The London Sessions

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