Known as "The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige is one of the best-selling R&B divas of all time. With her huge, cutting voice and a diverse list of collaborators — from Puff Daddy to U2 to Aretha Franklin — Blige has long had wide, cross-generational appeal. She's also seen as something of a signing version of Oprah, a wise, assured female who belts out self-empowerment anthems while keeping most of her music bright and pop-friendly.
Blige was born in the Bronx but spent her early years in Savannah, Georgia, where she sang in a Pentecostal church. Her family moved to suburban Yonkers, New York, where Blige continued to sing. Her first demo (recorded at a karaoke studio in a shopping mall) was a version of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture," which eventually got her signed by Andre Harrell to Uptown Records.
Blige's debut, What's the 411? (Number Six Pop, Number One R&B, 1992), mixed her affinity for classic soul (she covered Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing") with a contemporary urban edge. The album includes cameos by rappers Grand Puba, Heavy D., C.L. Smooth, De La Soul's Mase, and EPMD's Erick Sermon. Blige first charted with "You Remind Me" (Number 29 Pop, Number One R&B, 1992), from the film Strictly Business, but it was her debut album's single "Real Love" (Number Seven Pop, Number 1 R&B, 1992) that made Blige one of the biggest crossover artists of the year.
Blige's 1994 album, My Life, reached Number Seven on the Top 200 (Number One R&B) and yielded a Number Six single, "Be Happy." In 1995 Blige and the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man had a Grammy-winning smash hit with a medley of Ashford and Simpson songs, "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" (Number Three Pop, Number One R&B). The track was mixed by frequent Blige collaborator and budding hip-hop kingpin Sean Combs.
In 1996 Blige's "Not Gon' Cry" (Number Two Pop, Number One R&B) was featured in the film adaptation of the Terry McMillan novel Waiting to Exhale. The single also appeared on Blige's Share My World (Number One Pop and R&B, 1997). The album yielded seven R&B hits, including "It's On" (Number Eight), featuring R. Kelly, and found Blige's music stressing the soul side of her hip-hop/soul hybrid
In 1999 Blige sang on the R&B hits of Kirk Franklin and George Michael and released Mary (Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, Number Two Pop, 1999), her fourth and most pop-leaning album. Focusing less on hard times and heartache than its predecessors, the record features uplifting music and explores themes of spirituality and self-worth. It also sports a sweeping supporting cast, including Aretha Franklin, Babyface, Eric Clapton and Elton John. "All That I Can Say" (Number Six R&B) was written and produced by hip-hop diva Lauryn Hill.
No More Drama (Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, Number Two Pop, 2001) was another chapter in her hybrid soul approach and yielded the Dr. Dre-produced dance hit "Family Affair" (Number One Pop and R&B/Hip-Hop, 2001) and the title song (Number 16 R&B/Hip-Hop, Number 15 pop, 2001). After a 2002 album of remixes, Dance for Me, Blige returned in collaboration with P. Diddy on Love & Life (Number One Pop and R&B/Hip-Hop, 2004). Despite high expectations, the album received tepid reviews.
Her 2005 album The Breakthrough (Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, 2005; Number One Pop, 2006) lived up to its title, giving Blige a string of hits including "Be Without You" (Number One R&B/Hip-Hop, Number Three Pop, 2005), "Enough Cryin'" (Number Two R&B/Hip-Hop, Number 32 pop, 2006) and a lower charting duet with U2 on the band's song "One." The Breakthrough won Blige three Grammys in 2007: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song ("Be Without You") and Best R&B Album.
Blige's late-2007 album Growing Pains (Number One, R&B/Hip-Hop and Pop, 2008) yielded the hit "Just Fine" (Number Three R&B/Hip-Hop, Number 22 Pop, 2008). In December, 2009, Blige released Stronger With Each Tear, which debuted at Number Two.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.