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The Heroes Issue of V Magazine: @MaryJBlige by @MissyElliot

September 10, 2011

Every hero has an origin story, and Mary J. Blige’s is proof of the life-changing power of music. When she was just 17 years old, she sang Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” in a recording booth at the Galleria Mall in White Plains, New York. That cassette found its way to Andre Harrell at Uptown Records, who signed her as the label’s first female artist. “If Anita Baker, one of my favorite singers ever, hadn’t had that song and that album, Rapture, that got us through so much, I would not have found something I love that I wanted to hear my voice on,” Blige says over the phone from Los Angeles. “I needed to hear that what was coming out of my mouth was real. And it was.”


A powerful, beloved, inspirational vocalist whose raw emotionality has become her signature, Blige was heralded by Sean Combs as “the queen of hip-hop soul” when she debuted in 1992 with the album What’s the 411? She has since enraptured collaborators from Method Man and the Game to Bono and Elton John, openly divulging her personal heartbreaks and addictions—a voyage summed up in her 2001 Behind the Music special, in which she testified about the one thing Chaka Khan told her that she will never forget: “Get out of your own way.” Missy Elliott, who nominated Blige for this issue, recognizes Blige as an elevated role model and generational caretaker, crediting her with “helping me to believe in me” and for “getting many women through relationships—from heartbreak to independence.”


Now Blige has a “My Life” fragrance, a Melodies by MJB line of sunglasses, and a charitable agency, Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now. There are Grammys, American Music Awards, BET Awards, World Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, NAACP Image Awards, and Soul Train Music Awards that she keeps on “this really, really tall shelf thing,” she laughs, in the library of her 18,250-square-foot Saddle River, New Jersey, home. “I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s made for that kind of stuff.” In 2010, Billboard ranked Blige as the top female R&B/hip-hop artist of the past twenty-five years, ahead of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson. “I literally got teary-eyed,” she remembers. And yet she describes her voice as “very imperfect. But right now I’m satisfied with what I hear back,” she says. “I’m not afraid to go to certain places. I’m not afraid to let my voice be my voice. Imperfections are what heal people. They’re the things people relate to.”


As prolific as ever, Blige will appear as a strip-club owner named Justice in the feature adaptation of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages, starring Tom Cruise. (“He said, ‘Don’t worry. Have fun. For this film, it’s not worry time,’” she says. “He said, ‘I’d tell you if it was worry time.’”) Her ballad “The Living Proof,” for the sound track of the film The Help, is in heavy rotation. And then there is the release of her tenth album, My Life II… The Journey Continues, which invokes her pained and perfect 1994 sophomore record. “On the first My Life album, my fans and I were in such a place that we didn’t know if we were coming or going, whether we were going to live or die, we were just in so much pain,” Blige says. “Most of us didn’t really even want to be here. But we survived all of that suffering, and our lives have changed.” It’s a continuation of the story she has been telling over the course of her career. “And the story I’ve been telling is that life is real,” she says.


Formerly a crossover artist living in the projects, Blige is now a universal superstar who is first in line to be the next Aretha Franklin. “I hear people say things like, ‘You are the voice of the generations and the generations to come. You’re going to be here like Aretha has been here,’” Blige says. “I’ve heard it, and now it’s registering, and I’m seeing it unfold.” How does she imagine herself years from now as that grande dame? “By then I will only be getting calls to come out. I won’t actually have to come out,” she laughs. “They’ll say, ‘We want Mary to come out and sing before the new president again,’ or ‘We want Mary to perform at the Oscars.’ Or whatever.”


Blige says it wasn’t until fairly recently that she finally accepted her success. “I began to believe in 2005 [the year of her album The Breakthrough],” she recalls, “but 2011 was the year that I said I believe completely.” Then again, Blige has never been one to come up short on faith. “When I look back, I remember seeing pieces of what this woman right here was going to be,” she says. “And now she owns herself and she believes. When things get really hard and I have those moments of, ‘Okay, I’m not feeling too good,’ I have to remember, I believe. I believe.”


Mary J. Blige in Los Angeles, June 2011
Styling Maryam Malakpour
Jacket Adrienne Landau Earrings Blige’s own
Mary J. Blige’s My Life II… The Journey Continues is out
in October 2011 from Matriarch/Geffen/Interscope
Makeup D’Andre Michael for U.G.L.Y Girl Cosmetics (Margaret Maldonado Agency)
Hair Kimberly Kimble for Kimble Hair Care (Margaret Maldonado Agency)
Manicure Kimmie Kyee’s for Elegant Touch (Celestine Agency)
Photo assistants Frank Terry, Nikolaus Jung, Mario Sanchez
Stylist assistants Angelo DeSanto and Marc Berger
Location Siren Studios, Los Angeles
Retouching Dtouch
Special thanks Kate Rosen
Look for this issue in newsstands

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