Mary J. Blige: The Billboard Cover Story and Video
Anthony Mandler

Mary J. Blige Returns With Her Ninth Studio Album And Branches Out Into Movies, Branding And Charity Work

On the chorus of her latest single, "I Am," Mary J. Blige sings in her riveting voice: "Ain't nobody gonna touch you better... more than I am." Since breaking through with her first R&B charting single and first No. 1 in 1992, "You Remind Me," no one has touched fans' inner emotions quite like Blige.

Video above: Mary J. Blige talks to Billboard's Bill Werde about making music for "Precious."

Nearly 20 years later, that emotional connection shows no signs of fraying. The nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter -- who has earned such sobriquets along the way as "the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" and "the Empress of Soul" -- returns Dec. 21 with her ninth studio album, "Stronger" (Matriach/Geffen/Interscope). Produced and co-written by Stargate, "I Am" debuted at No. 46 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Not only was the bow the singer's best start since 2007, it marked her 17th top 50 debut as a lead artist -- the most by a female -- and her 59th appearance overall among women, second only to the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (99).

"You never want to say the words 'It's a perfect song,'" Interscope marketing chief Steve Berman says about the single, which is No. 39 this week on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. "But I believe this song is as close as you get. Given the positive response it's received this far, once it fully penetrates, we will have a great long run with it."

In addition to Stargate, Blige enlisted the production and songwriting talent of Ryan Leslie, Polow Da Don, the Runners, Ne-Yo, Akon, Bryan-Michael Cox, Rodney Jerkins, the Stereotypes, D'Mile and Geffen chairman Ron Fair. Guests on the set include Trey Songz, Drake (the previously released track "The One") and T.I. Appearing as a bonus song on the album is the title track, a previously issued single from the "More Than a Game" soundtrack.

Universal Motown singer/songwriter/producer Leslie calls working with Blige for the first time "one of the most inspiring and magical experiences in my career. She's a writer with her own perspective --'This is what the music sounds like and what it's saying to me' -- who is just as comfortable knocking a verse out as she is knocking out her vocal in the booth."

On the heels of performing "I Am" at the Nov. 22 American Music Awards, Blige is gearing up for a series of performances. Following her Nov. 24 appearance on "Lopez Tonight" and a Nov. 30 stop on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," fans will be able to catch Blige on "The Jay Leno Show" (Dec. 17), "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" (Dec. 18), the "Christmas in Washington" special with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (Dec. 20), "Today" (Dec. 22) and "The View" (Dec. 23). On the retail front, Blige taped an episode for Wal-Mart's Soundstage promotion.

Blige the artist is also busy ramping up her evolution into Blige the entrepreneur. Her Matriarch Records recently released the original motion picture soundtrack to the critically acclaimed Lee Daniels film, "Precious." In addition to co-writing a song specifically commissioned for the soundtrack with Raphael Saadiq, the moving "I Can See in Color," Blige doubled as executive producer on the set, which features previously recorded tracks by Jean Carn, Queen Latifah and Labelle.