A LOT OF PEOPLE JUST LISTEN to beats," says Mary J. Blige, wrinkling her brow disdainfully. "And then maybe a year later they pick up on the lyrics. I listen to everything – bam! – all at one time." So when the queen of hip-hop soul reunited with P. Diddy – who coproduced her 1992 debut, What's the 411? – she wanted an album that was danceable but not frivolous. The result is Love and Life, with guest shots from 50 Cent, Eve, Jay-Z and Method Man. "There's a song called 'Press On' that [P. Diddy] said didn't fit with the texture," she says. "I was like, To hell with the texture! My people need to hear this right now. People need to hear that Mary's in the struggle with them constantly. I'm keeping that. This is my story.'"
What's your first musical memory?
"Everybody Loves the Sunshine," by Roy Ayers. I was sitting on the floor, and maybe there was some party going on in the house. This was before my father left. I was four, but I remember that as though I was conceived to it.
How do you feel when you hear that song now?
Exactly like I felt that day. I can't describe it – it just gets under my ribs. "Summer Madness" [by Kool and the Gang] does that, too. When I was twelve, I started listening to that, but my father was already gone. He played a lot of Kool and the Gang when he was around – and a lot of jazz and funk.
What's the first record you ever bought?
I went to Music Man [in Yonkers, New York] and bought the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." It was the newest thing, so everyone was running to get it. And then I bought De-Barge. I spent twelve dollars because I needed "All this Love" in my life.
Did your mom encourage you to get into music?
She encouraged me by playing so much around the house. Everything my mom played was soul – from Dorothy Moore to Aretha Franklin to Jackie Moore to Betty Wright to Shirley Brown. These are women that people don't even know about. Millie Jackson, Candi Staton, the Staple Singers – that's the soul that was running through my home.
Did you dig it as a kid?
I loved every bit of it, except for one song: "I've Got Dreams to Remember," by Otis Redding. She'd play that song a hundred times. I'd be like, "Please stop." We'd actually break the records, hide the records, and she'd keep buying more.
Do you ever feel like you lose faith in new music?
I was about to lose faith, but then last year I started understanding exactly what's going on. The music industry is like a car business. Whatever sells is what's the thing now. When I was coming up, you had to work for everything. It didn't matter how pretty you were. You could have been a blimp, but if you could sing, you'd be fine. Now there's a smoke screen to keep the real music out.
Which young artists have gotten past that superficial stuff?
Jill Scott. All the music on her album was incredible. She came from a sound that does not exist anymore. She picked out a time and a place in all the years and grabbed it and put it right here. Everyone was trying to do that, and she nailed it.
Is there anything you listen to just because it's fun?
Yeah. Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" grabbed me in a fun way and an angry way. The video is what sold it for me: She started off slow, and then she just went wild out in the desert. I hadn't seen a rock & roll female like her in a while. I was like, "Wow, she's the truth on that." And Madonna has always had fun songs that also grab you.
Do you have a favorite Madonna record?
"Borderline." I'm getting ready to start crying right now! It just reminds me of a time when I was little. And 'Total Eclipse of the Heart," by Bonnie Tyler. That record right there, I loved. I went out and bought it.
Anything you're embarrassed to admit you like?
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" [by Nirvana]. You're the first person I ever told that! That song is crazy. I was like, "Why do I like this record?" But I felt like there was something going on with Kurt Cobain – everybody felt like they were a part of that song.
You have a similar relationship with your fans, don't you?
I think it's because I deal in the real world. On this album, there's a song called "Ooh!" It pretty much says, "You know what? You're sexy, but forget all that, we ain't worried about that. I'm turned on by the fact that people like you even exist. But if you hurt me, you got a problem." See, I deal in the real world. I've never been in love like this before, because I've never loved myself this much before.
What puts you in the mood?
My fiancé always puts in Sting. "Fragile" – I really like that one. And "Shape of My Heart." They're beautiful songs, and they sound nice with the lights off.