No 'Pains,' No Gains: Mary J. Blige
Bringing out a new Mary J. Blige album is a big challenge.Bringing out a new Mary J. Blige album is a big challenge. That's because Blige, anointed "the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" in 1992, is on a 15-year multiplatinum run as one of the most electric performers in the urban world, with a wide-ranging crossover base that straddles the R&B, hip-hop, pop and even AC markets.
Her last two studio albums, 2003's "Love & Life" and 2005's "The Breakthrough," debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200. Even last year's "Reflections—A Retrospective" opened in the top 10.
For "Growing Pains," due Dec. 18 via Geffen, it started in late September with the online release of the single "Just Fine." In October and November, Blige completed a whirlwind international promo tour to get audiences ready, and just before Thanksgiving, another new song began appearing in an Apple ad for iTunes and iPod.
The Bronx-born singer/songwriter's ninth album is already stirring things up with the uptempo "Just Fine." But as far as Blige is concerned, the music is the key component in maintaining that success. She says, "I started out with this concept of growing pains because that's how I was feeling during the  Grammys: 'Am I good enough for this; do I really deserve all this in my life?' But something in my head said, 'Yes, you are. Now you're forced to rapidly grow up in this area in order to achieve and get the things you want.' "
Featuring collaborations with Ne-Yo (who wrote the track "Fade Away" from a poem by Blige), Timbaland, Akon, the Dream and Tricky Stewart (the team behind Rihanna's "Umbrella"), Bryan-Michael Cox and the Clutch, among others, "Growing Pains" finds Blige coming to terms with her success, particularly in the wake of the last album's three Grammy Award wins.
It's been a hard-fought battle, through well-chronicled personal travails in romance and substance addictions, and coming out victorious has been an adjustment. As she sings in "Just Fine": "No time for moping around, are you kidding?/No time for negative vibes, 'cause I'm winning."
This is just the work to get to that part—where nothing bothers you and nothing is stressing you out," says Blige, who also gets help from rapper Ludacris on "Grown Woman" and adopts her strident Brook-Lynn alter ego on the track "Nowhere Fast." "That's where I'm headed and that's where I am, but there's a whole other level of that that I have to get to. That might take a lifetime, but that's where I'm headed."
Collaborating with Stewart, the Dream and Jazze Pha on "Just Fine" helped set the tone. "When I heard the beat, I was like, 'OK, this is hot. This is making my body move, and I'm having fun,' " says Blige. "It sounded like something that needed to be more uplifting than, 'Woe is me' [laughs]. So I tried to make the song about how I appreciate the good days I do have and where I'm at right now, even though I still have challenges."
Geffen's GM Jeff Harleston says bringing out an album as anxiously awaited as "Growing Pains" can be just fine for the label, too—but this year it faces some unexpected obstacles in marketing the release.
Usually, Harleston says, the strategy for Blige revolves around a combination of strong radio and personal appearances performing on TV. But the writers' strike has put the talk and variety shows Blige would perform on in dry-dock, limiting those TV opportunities for her, although Harleston says Geffen still plans on an aggressive campaign once the strike is settled.
The label is exploring several other avenues. Radio remains a major component, with "Just Fine" already No. 36 on The Billboard Hot 100 after six weeks. The song's Chris Applebaum-directed video had the rare distinction of debuting simultaneously on BET, iTunes, MTV and VH1 Oct. 25. Blige performed Nov. 18 at the American Music Awards and Nov. 20 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, which Harleston describes as "a celebration of the completion of her album."
Some partnerships will also help Blige and Geffen launch "Growing Pains." The singer is continuing her relationship with Chevrolet that will include broadcast and Internet ads and at least one print campaign for the new version of the carmaker's Malibu—which incorporates a lyric from "Just Fine" ("I like what I see when I'm looking at me when I'm walking past the mirror").
Blige also plans to maintain her relationship with the NFL, which will place her music, and possibly the singer herself, into game broadcasts during December and January.
The Apple campaign, which features "Work That," should drive sales from the get-go. By comparison, digital downloads of Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4," which appeared in an early-fall iPod ad, soared from 6,800 to 128,000 in its first three weeks of exposure, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Blige will also embark on a short promotional tour starting the second week of December, visiting Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and possibly San Francisco. She'll visit radio stations and "try to have a special event," such as an appearance or performance, "in each of the markets," according to Harleston.
Blige's Web site has been redesigned to support "Growing Pains," and Geffen is lining up some online promotions, including programming with AOL and Yahoo that Harleston says will be "a little sexier than a standard 'Sessions' kind of performance . . . We'll make sure she's very present in the digital retail space." Geffen is also working on plans for "exclusive content for various retailers," both terrestrial and Internet-based.
There's also a "huge international component" in the "Growing Pains" marketing strategy, Harleston says. Blige went to Africa in mid-October for a series of dates, having gone to South Africa last year to help open the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls there and being "really taken by the experience." She also went to Europe and briefly returned to the United States before a two-week tour of Japan in early November.
In Europe, "The Breakthrough" went top 10 in Switzerland, while the single "Be Without You" achieved the same distinction in Switzerland and Holland.
"I'm probably in the best shape that I've ever been in in my life," says Blige, whose stamina will surely be tested in the run-up to the new album. "I'm really healthy. I make sure I'm not stressed out over a lot of things."
Blige is also expected to hit Europe in December, and Andrea Nelson Meigs, her talent agent at ICM, says she's looking to fit in feature film work in first-quarter 2008. Blige has appeared on such TV shows as "The Jamie Foxx Show," "Ghost Whisperer," "Entourage" and "America's Next Top Model," and she's long been linked to a Nina Simone biopic.
On top of all this, Blige is also operating her own label, Matriarch Records. R&B singer Dave Young—who co-wrote "No One Will Do," "Baggage" and "MJB Da MVP" on "The Breakthrough"—is slated to be the imprint's first release, though a date has not yet been set. "He's got a voice that's been missing in R&B," Blige says. "It's incredibly soulful: He's like our Donny [Hathaway] that we don't have, our Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Tyrone Davis."
More than anything, however, she's anxious to get her "Growing Pains" out to the public and continue what Blige says has been a career-long dialogue with her audience.
"My fans are like shrinks for me," Blige says. "Any time a person listens to you, they're helping you, and there's 5 million people out there listening to me. I'm like, 'Wow, thank y'all for listening.'"