Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 996 from March 23, 2006. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
It begins with a familiar guitar lick. But then Mary J. Blige steps up to the microphone and demonstrates why she's the premier R&B vocalist of her generation. For more than a decade, ''One'' was U2's defining hit. After four minutes, Blige owns the song. By the time she gets to ''love is a higher law,'' you want to aid the afflicted, change your life or touch the face of God.
Half a century ago, rhythm & blues started in the church and then migrated to the secular world: The sacred became profane, gospel became soul. But Blige has reversed that direction with her own life. After a career full of drugs, drink and diva fits, she's found her spiritual side, and she now gets through her days with prayer, Bible verses and OK, the occasional temper tantrum.
''For the first time in my life, I'm proud of myself,'' Blige says quietly. ''I'm not an ignorant idiot jerk that don't want to learn no more.'' She lets that sentence hang in the air, gathering the weight of all the bad decisions she ever made, and then she laughs. ''But I must admit — I still have my ignorant moments.''
We're in a private room at a steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. Blige, 35, arrived wearing a Ralph Lauren turtleneck sweater, a Balenciaga coat and oversize Alexander McQueen sunglasses. For all the designer labels, the outfit is subdued — not the ghetto-glam look she favors for public appearances — and she appears small, even vulnerable. Blige asks if I want her to take off the sunglasses; when I say there's no need, she seems grateful.
I ask Blige about growing up in the projects of Yonkers, just ten miles north but worlds away in terms of economic privilege. She shares her earliest memories: a party at her family's house where Roy Ayers' ''Everybody Loves the Sunshine'' was playing, and eating FrankenBerry cereal. Then she thinks some more and says, ''Singing was freedom.''
Young Mary needed that freedom: Her father had walked out on the family, and at age five she was molested. She would go down to the pier with friends and sing as loud as she could over the Hudson River, just to hear what the music sounded like over the water. Visiting the local mall when she was a junior in high school, Blige recorded a karaoke tape on a whim: a version of Anita Baker's ''Caught Up in the Rapture.'' The tape got in the hands of Andre Harrell at Uptown Records, who heard a girl who could make soul music for a hip-hop generation.
Four years later, when Blige reached the ripe old age of twenty-one, Uptown dubbed her ''the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul'' and released her 1992 debut, What's the 411? The music, which mixed balladry with street beats, announced that Blige was fierce, as did the scar on her cheek that she never discussed. The album went tripleplatinum, and a diva was launched.
As Blige's career continued, she wrote more of her lyrics. Her music began to reflect the drama in her life more explicitly: for example, her tempestuous six-year relationship with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci, who she says abused her. ''It seems like I've always been in a situation where a man is jealous of me,'' Blige says. Soul music has long been a cathartic expression of grief — or as Blige puts it, ''The pain was so excruciatingly heavy for me, I didn't know what else to do with it.''
Part of the typical rock-star mythology is bad behavior and the methodical destruction of hotel rooms; part of Blige's mythology was bad behavior and the methodical destruction of her own self. Blige says that she asked a friend, ''Am I being too promiscuous and drinking too much?''
The friend's reply: ''Girl, you young! You drink and be promiscuous!''
At the time, Blige was glad to have the affirmation. Now she looks at that advice differently; ''Wow she really didn't like me at all.''
Blige's 1999 tour was sponsored by Seagram's, ''We had boxes full of Seagram's gin, blue and yellow,'' she remembers. ''Every time I'd come offstage, I would have my people bring me a plastic cup full of gin and grapefruit juice.'' She indicates the size of the cup with her hands — we're not talking sample size. ''And I would guzzle that, go to the club and have wine and whatever every single night after the show, and then wonder why I couldn't sing.''
Blige has an unusual complaint about her drug habit: It was a gateway to tobacco. ''I was never a cigarette smoker,'' she says. ''I used to smoke weed, but doing cocaine, you need something to calm you down, so you have a drink and a cigarette. I was smoking a pack of Newports a night for almost two years.''
She shakes her head. ''I wasn't able to give people what they needed vocally,'' she laments. ''I listen back to some of that stuff, and I think, 'What do people like about Mary J. Blige?' Now I listen to myself, and I'm like, 'Wow, I like Mary. Even when she misses a note, she's good.''
Two things helped Blige get straight. One was the death of Aaliyah, in a 2001 plane crash. Blige barely knew her, but she took the tragedy as a portent. The other was an ultimatum from her boyfriend, record executive Kendu Isaacs: She needed to stop drinking. Initially, she tried switching to wine. ''Not just glasses of wine,'' she says. ''Bottles of wine.''
The Bible was more effective: Blige reads one chapter of Proverbs every day, corresponding to the day of the month. When she was trying to get sober, she seemed to always be hung over on the twentieth of the month, meaning that Scripture regularly reminded her, ''Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: And whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.'' The verse she keeps coming back to, though, is in the thirty-seventh Psalm: ''Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.''
''Meaning,'' Blige says, ''don't feel bad when people try to hurt you.''
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