Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.
Mary J. Blige is jubilant.
And it is evident on her sunny new album, "Love & Life."
"This album is a celebration of life," says the R&B singer, whose previous sets often have been steeped in pain and heartbreak.
"All the bad things in the world couldn't have happened to a better person than Mary," she says, speaking of herself. "If Mary can do it, then others can, too. Learning to love yourself takes work. And right now, I love Mary."
Indeed, Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine says the album shows Blige "at the top of her game."
Due Aug. 26 (one day earlier internationally), the gorgeously soul-smacked set finds Blige reteamed with producer Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. It also sees her joining the restructured Geffen Records, which recently absorbed MCA, Blige's former label.
Joining Blige on "Love & Life" are special guests Jay-Z ("Love & Life Intro"), Eve (the Dr. Dre-produced "Not Today") and 50 Cent ("Let Me Be the 1").
Additionally, Method Man raps on the first single, "Love @ 1st Sight," which has rebounded to No. 10 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.
The single's video, directed by Chris Robinson, has been embraced by BET, MTV and VH1, paving the way for appearances on MTV's "Total Request Live" and BET's "106 and Park."
While "Love & Life" is certainly Blige's album, Combs' influence on the overall sound cannot be denied.
Though Blige has worked with numerous producers through the years, her collaborations with Combs appear to have left the most lasting impression on fans. He handled the bulk of production duties on the singer's first two albums, the classics "What's the 411?" and "My Life," released in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
Citing creative differences, Blige and Combs parted ways for the remainder of the decade. They reconnected last year, when Combs remixed the single "No More Drama."
Because the mix "came out hot," Blige says she and Combs realized that the chemistry between them was very much intact.
For Blige, working again with Combs "wasn't overwhelming. I don't let anything take me over the top. He still wants what he wants, and I still want what I want. He's still Puffy, and I'm still Mary."
Combs says he was excited to be back behind the boards working with Blige. "For me, the new album is a continuation of 'My Life,' " he explains.
But there was one major difference. During the recording of "My Life," Combs says he told Blige how to do everything. "We went our separate ways because of this.
"With 'Love & Life,' I was less of a dictator," he continues. "It was more of an even playing field this time."
He credits this to Blige's confidence as a singer/songwriter. "We have both grown in many ways over the years."
In addition to the basic album, a limited-edition version of "Love & Life" will include a bonus DVD with "making of the album" film footage.
"Let it be known," the artist says. "Mary is in love and enjoying her life. But the songs on this album show that you must keep pressing on. I am only human. I am not a statue to worship."
Excerpted from the Aug. 9, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services  section.
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