Mary J. Blige photographed on Nov. 10 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Styling by Law Roach. Blige wears a vintage Paco Rabanne coat, Cengiz Abazoğlu bodysuit, Le Silla shoes, L’Dezen earrings and Joelle ear cuff. 
Mary J. Blige photographed on Nov. 10 at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Styling by Law Roach. Blige wears a vintage Paco Rabanne coat, Cengiz Abazoğlu bodysuit, Le Silla shoes, L’Dezen earrings and Joelle ear cuff. 
Austin Hargrave 

Billboard Women in Music 'Icon' Mary J. Blige on Her New 'Party Songs' and Healing Post-Divorce

Plenty of artists claim to only show their most genuine selves to their audiences. But a scarce few expose their souls as regularly, and as completely, as Mary J. Blige does. During nearly three decades and 10 No. 1s on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart -- a feat she shares with Aretha Franklin, The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder -- Blige, 46, has written her share of party anthems, but she has also sung about abusive relationships, addiction issues and shady hangers-on with a voice, and conviction, that feels like it could shake the heavens. “I guess God has given me a gift to be able to go back, feel and relive, and not have it harm me,” says Blige. “I still cry when I listen to [1994’s] My Life because it’s so real -- it’s something that really happened. But I don’t mind going through some pain if it’s so my fans can heal.”

In April, Blige released Strength of a Woman, her 13th studio album, 14th top 10 on the Billboard 200 and her latest effort to alchemize beauty out of deep pain: It chronicles the collapse of her 12-year marriage to her former manager, Kendu Isaacs. In its unbridled look at the fallout from a love gone south it recalls Marvin Gaye’s classic Here, My Dear, but as Blige herself says, “This is not just a divorce album.” It’s hopeful, searching and spiritual, too, excavating tragedy in order to focus more fully on the future -- as Blige is already doing. She’s attracting early Oscar buzz for her performance in Dee Rees’ Mississippi Delta historical epic Mudbound, and she’s at work on her next album. “As long as I’m living, I’m not going to be afraid to use whatever I’m dealing with to try to be an inspiration,” says Blige. “If you can’t relate to it, then it’s not who I am.”


SILVER LININGS

“This album came through something that was a terrible challenge: ‘Wow, I just really lost my marriage. And I’m fighting for my life right now.’ But it’s not all negative. There’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. I’m expressing myself for every woman that can’t get out, or don’t know how to get out.”

HER ICONS

“It takes a really strong woman to be in a business that is so male-dominated and stand tall. Tina Turner and Madonna are inspirations, definitely. So was Whitney Houston, vocally and what she meant as an artist -- in spite of her trials.”

BEING THE CHANGE

“I feel like things are changing for women because we are choosing for it to change. A lot of women are coming out of the dark and saying, ‘I’m not taking this anymore.’ We’re opening our mouths and we’re standing up and living up to who we are. We’re not just helpmates. We are equals!”

THE NEXT EPISODE

“Normally it takes me two years after I make an album to go on to the next, but the title [which Blige hasn't revealed yet] just came to me so clear, and when that happens I know I have to move on. I guess because there was so much darkness, the next thing had to be light. I need it to have some party songs.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of Billboard.

2017 Billboard Women in Music


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