Mary J. Blige: The Billboard Cover Story and Video

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.In the meantime, Blige and her manager and husband, Kendu Isaacs, are launching Matriarch Entertainment to develop TV and film projects. In that realm, Blige will work in tandem with William Morris Endeavor (WME), with whom the singer has signed for representation. Blige's previous acting roles include "The Ghost Whisperer," "Entourage" and, most recently, Tyler Perry's "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Two Blige product lines are rolling out in the coming year: her Melodies line of sunglasses in association with Geffen/Interscope and the My Life fragrance through her partnership in the Brooklyn-based natural beauty products company Carol's Daughter. But beyond music and her burgeoning roles as a businesswoman and actress/producer, it's Blige's work with FFAWN (the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now) and the recent opening of the first Mary J. Blige Center for Women in her hometown of Yonkers, N.Y., that really stokes her fiery passion.What was your mind-set when you began working on "Stronger"?

I always say that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I honestly believe that. And I'm the type of celebrity who can't not talk about the trials I've been through. No matter how successful you become, you always end up finding out there's something in you that needs to be purged. You hit a valley, another trial. It hurts so bad that you have to go through something like this again.

But people are people, and you will have to go through things as long as you live on planet Earth. When you go through these situations, it's what you learn about yourself that gets you out of them as well as the responsibility you take about that particular lesson. And once you come out of that, you're definitely a stronger individual than you were before. The strength in that is learning how to forgive and move on. That's a serious lesson. As is learning how to love yourself even more to another level, where you don't expect or need anybody to make you feel good about yourself. That's why I named the album "Stronger." That's what I had to learn from this trial I was in, another self-love trial.

Was there anything in particular that set this trial in motion?

I don't want to go into any details about that. But I do have days when I'll run around like my life is over. And what makes me happy is when I can come out of those situations feeling like I've learned something.

How would you describe your evolution as a singer/songwriter from 1992 until now?

Each and every time, I gain more wisdom about speaking from every place I learn from. There's really no difference. It's just me continuing to grow.

Speaking of which, fans may be surprised that you're one of the guests on classical artist Andrea Bocelli's holiday album. How did that come about?

He requested me [laughs]. I knew his voice was amazing so I said, "Yes, absolutely."

Since you've logged your first soundtrack under your label, what other projects can we expect from Matriarch?

LaNeah [Menzies, who shares a writing credit on "I Can See in Color" and on Kanye West's "Love Lockdown"] has joined the Matriarch roster, with her debut album slated for spring 2010. Other than that, we're trying to wrap up a few deals with several more artists. I don't want to share too much about that until everything is signed.How did you become associated with Carol's Daughter?

[Brand marketing executive] Steve Stoute, who's been a friend of mine in the music business for as long as I can remember, asked me what I thought about Carol's Daughter products. I'd already fallen in love with the product before that; it was so good. But I'd been searching for the product ever since and could never find it in any stores. So when Steve mentioned it to me a couple of years ago, I said it was definitely something I'd love to be involved with. So he took what I said to the Carol's Daughter folks and the rest is history. I'm now a co-owner of the company, along with Will Smith, Jada Pinkett and Jay-Z, as well as its spokesperson.

I also have a perfume line coming out next year under Carol's Daughter called My Life. I did all the work, smelling different scents every single day. I put in a lot of time to make this perfume work because I wanted it to smell like when people compliment me and ask, "What are you wearing, Mary?" So I made a version of what it is I wear, trying to figure out what it was that got to them.

So My Life is a combination of what scents?

I'm basically a flower girl. So it has flowery scents with just a little musk and a tiny bit of wood.

In a separate venture, you also have the Melodies sunglass line coming out.

I don't know if you watched me sing the national anthem on the World Series with the Yankees. But the glasses I wore and then took off are from the Melodies line. I had to put them on display [laughs]. I designed those myself along with the eyeglass designing company [SpyOptics]. It's my version of what I wear. I have a lot of sunglasses that I'm fond of, so I took my favorite pairs and said, "Let's try to figure out something from these." And they figured it out.

Describe what it felt like to open the first Mary J. Blige Center for Women.

Opening that center is one of my greatest achievements because it's something I've always wanted to do for other women. It's part of the charitable organization I co-founded with Steve Stoute in 2008, Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now. Our initiative is to educate, encourage and empower women. Yonkers is where I grew up and saw women destroyed, both physically and mentally. So this center is beautiful for me because maybe those women's children or their children's children can go there and get help. I'm hoping to see FFAWN and Mary J. Blige Centers all over the world. Outside of music, that's probably the one thing to which I will devote a lot of my time.

During the recent Hollywood Reporter/Billboard Film & TV Conference, you mentioned your ongoing wish to do a biopic about Nina Simone. Is that any closer to happening? What other film and TV projects are you developing?

Yes. WME, [TV/film writer/producer] Cynthia Mort and I are now moving forward on "The Nina Simone Story." It's been a long time coming.

We're also working on a film, which the Lifetime Network just picked up. It's about Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife, and Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King's wife, and the lives they led being the women behind such important men. It's really deep: Their lives are different but both women also go through the same things at the same time. I don't want to give away too many details about it, but it's going to be an important film.

So you're eyeing more acting projects?

Working with Cara Lewis and Randy Michelle at WME has been a blessing because they really go out for you and do what they say they're going to do. I have scripts now that they're sending over. There aren't a lot of great parts out there, so they're trying to pick the best material for me. I'm waiting patiently, but you will definitely see me in more films.After almost 20 years in music, what continues to drive you?

Honestly, it goes back to my fans. I have a responsibility to them and they let me know that it's a responsibility. I read things all the time from them like, "Please keep doing what you doing." Or "I'm listening to 'Growing Pains' right now and it's getting me through my day." It's just the things people say that connect me with their lives . . . that keeps me going.

All this could be gone today or tomorrow if I were to act like I did it all by myself. It's God first and then my fans. They help me do what I'm doing; they're the reason why I am where I am. And I always acknowledge them in that. I've never been the type of person to become full of myself. I've never known how to do that because when we were growing up, if you even showed out a little, someone would try to take you out. So I guess the balance in that is what it taught me: to stay humble and not count all your chickens before they hatch. To just stay on a level where people can relate to you and you can relate to them.