Tracing the whole sweep of Mary J. Blige’s career through the critically acclaimed 2014 album, The London Sessions, this is the first serious look at the music and cultural impact of one of the most important musical artists to emerge in the past quarter century
Series: American Music Series
Mary J. Blige is an icon who represents the political consciousness of hip hop and the historical promise of soul. She is an everywoman, celebrated by Oprah Winfrey and beloved by pop music fans of all ages and races. Blige has sold over fifty million albums, won numerous Grammys, and even played at multiple White House events, as well as the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Displaying astonishing range and versatility, she has recorded everything from Broadway standards to Led Zeppelin anthems and worked with some of popular music’s greatest artists—Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Sting, U2, and Beyoncé, among them.
Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige tells the story of one of the most important artists in pop music history. Danny Alexander follows the whole arc of Blige’s career, from her first album, which heralded the birth of “hip hop soul,” to her critically praised 2014 album, The London Sessions. He highlights the fact that Blige was part of the historically unprecedented movement of black women onto pop radio and explores how she and other women took control of their careers and used their music to give voice to women’s (and men’s) everyday struggles and dreams. This book adds immensely to the story of both black women artists and artists rooted in hip hop and pays tribute to a musician who, by expanding her reach and asking tough questions about how music can and should evolve, has proven herself an artistic visionary.
- 1. The Artist of a Generation
- 2. The Slow Bomb
- 3. Ladies, Ladies, It Is Our Turn
- 4. Uptown
- 5. What’s the 411?
- 6. Changes I’ve Been Going Through
- 7. Hip Hop a Go-Go
- 8. My Life
- 9. Natural Woman
- 10. Share My World
- 11. On the Road with MJB: Alyson Williams
- 12. The Tour
- 13. Sisters in the Studio: Channette and Channoah Higgens
- 14. Mary, the Album
- 15. No More Drama
- 16. Love & Life
- 17. Live from Los Angeles
- 18. Message in Our Music
- 19. The Breakthrough
- 20. Growing Pains
- 21. Stronger with Each Tear
- 22. Hard Times Come Again No More
- 23. My Life II . . . The Journey Continues (Act 1)
- 24. A Mary Christmas
- 25. Think Like a Man Too
- 26. The London Sessions
- 27. Being with You
- Selected Discography
Mary speaks to the pain and struggle we as women have had and the power and strength that finding love brings, not just love of another person, but love of self. In an era when women haven’t been expected to be great, Mary has done what the greats do, and that’s be relevant, on a consistent basis, over a long period of time.
—Karyn White, whose three debut singles hit number one R&B the year Mary J. Blige signed with Uptown (2013 interview with the author)
In the urban community, Mary J. Blige preached the ghetto gospel of love and pain, triumph and change. She was the voice of a new generation of hip hop homegirls steeped in new jack and soulful melodies. She was the journal entry every woman related to, read out loud and proudly. She was the sexy, sassy, yet classy soul sista everyone wanted to be because in her they could see a lot of them, a lot of us, a lot of we.
—Portland R&B singer Toni Hill, solo artist, singer with Sirens Echo, and member of Hungry Mob (2014 interview with the author)
“Baggage” [a track from Mary J. Blige’s 2005 album, The Breakthrough] represents how so many of us are holding on to the pain. . . . We understand what’s weighing us down and yet we don’t know how to let go. So we ask the new lover for understanding, for him/her to not give up on us. It’s a universal feeling—this fear of being hurt again, a toxic emotion which depletes energy needed to sustain a new relationship. And so we keep fighting the baggage, the fear. That’s all we can do. What Mary does for me, when I hear “Baggage,” is validate that it’s okay to be in this struggle . . . it’s okay as long as you keep fighting to lighten the load, to find the courage to start over again.
Ann Cox, mother, student, writer living in Kansas (2014 interview with the author)
The Artist of a Generation
The moment I began doing interviews for this book, people began giving me testimonials. Karyn White opened her interview with the above prepared statement. The server at my favorite burger joint, the editor of my school paper, my friend who cuts my hair— virtually every woman I ran into between the ages of forty-five and twenty-five (and quite a few on either side of those numbers) talked about Mary J. Blige’s music with the mix of global vision and personal intimacy I’ve attempted to capture above. No other artist works such broad territory so closely.
Few have the consistency of output. Of the top singles artists from 1992, the year of her debut, only U2, Prince, and Mariah Carey seem particularly present in today’s popular culture. Of the top-charting-album artists that year, only Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Green Day, Bob Dylan, and Ice Cube are still well known. Only Blige, Green Day, Cube, and Carey actually emerged during this period. As one of two African American women on that list, Blige has never had the advantages and disadvantages that come with Carey’s pinup beauty and five-octave vocal range.
But Blige has always had something more. Though she arrived being called a Queen of Ghetto Love and a Queen of Hip Hop Soul, she was not celebrated for her good looks so much as her hip hop tough image. Dressing the tomboy in ball caps, jerseys, and oversized jackets, Blige conveyed the persona of a project girl with wisdom beyond her years. A hard new generation of gangstarelated rappers called her their own. Her debut album was even named What’s the 411?, announcing her music as a key to street knowledge.
Unlike Carey’s trilling vocal gymnastics, Blige’s raw (sometimes flat) vocals defined the intersection of gospel and the blues. Blige sang against hard, stark beats at the height of the crack epidemic, making her a uniquely street-savvy ambassador of love and hope. Her whirlwind rise forged the reputation of her producer, Sean Combs. Her influence exploded outward as she recorded with the most eloquent gangsta, the Notorious B.I.G.; fast-talkin’ jester, Busta Rhymes; the artist who defined “conscious” rap, Nas; and the coolest, most menacing member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man.
That was just her first act. By her third album, she shed her producer and struck out on her own, working with some of the greatest artists in any popular music genre—Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Sting, U2, and Beyoncé. Each album a step someplace new (if not always clearly forward), she cut fourteen over the next twenty years, in addition to two remix albums and a best-of compilation. She also appeared on forty other albums as a guest artist, and she was a featured artist on over one hundred singles.
Along the way, the tomboy blossomed into a fashion-minded trendsetter and, more importantly, an icon of women’s empowerment. Wearing her history of struggle, abuse, and transcendence as proudly as she came to show the scar on her left cheek that she’d long tried to hide, Mary J. Blige became something more than a diva, a queen of popular music, of popular culture, who represented the voices least represented in our society.
A quarter century after that first record, she does that job better than ever—with a voice still raw, still hip hop in its improvisational way with rhythm and possibility, but refined to such a state of control it seems there’s no part of the pop music universe she can’t call her own if she chooses to do so. She’s recorded everything from Broadway standards to Led Zeppelin anthems, and during her 2013 duet with Michael Bublé for his Christmas TV special, the popular crooner did what so many others (from Whitney Houston to Sam Smith) have done when standing by her side—lean on her for the vision to bring the performance home.
A crucial moment in this story was her 2001 single “No More Drama.” On the heels of her most successful pop single, “Family Affair,” “No More Drama” was released September 22, 2001, soon after the World Trade Center was attacked. When I first saw the music video, the drumbeats of the coming thirteen years of war were audible and terrifying.
The video started by focusing on the three actors playing the central characters. They were collaged as one body, running. Blige appeared in the second scene, dressed subdued and elegant, walking the streets, a witness to tragedy. The first protagonist was a young Latino man cradling the head of a vacant-eyed friend shot down in the street. In the other scenarios, a white junkie jonesed for a fix, and a black woman suffered mental and physical abuse. Blige faced the camera and sang about choices, but she was feeling every agony playing out around her. At one point her face morphed into the bruised and swollen features of the abused woman, but Blige immediately appeared behind the woman, pulling herself from the pain of the memory by declaring, “That was long ago.”
As Blige testified in a voice both racked with pain and triumphant, the addict tore a phone number and made a call for help, the young woman left her home, and the Latino youth decided not to take revenge. Each of these scenarios ended with a choice to break some kind of cycle, but the singer only grew more emphatic— her shouts and cries built in intensity, as if the real struggle had just begun.
Of course, for anyone in any form of recovery, that musical message spoke its own truth. But the video took the analogy one step further. It ended with Blige facing a store window, a bank of TV screens flashing the news. Varied images flickered rapidfire across those screens as if an unseen hand on a remote were desperately searching for some sign of relief. Instead, the news images bounced from police and street violence to military troops mobilizing, cities on fire, and the headline “America’s New War.”
At this point, the singer shook her fists and bent and shouted at the constant barrage of violence. Her voice was full of Pentecostal fire as she cried out, “Lord help me,” bolstered by the rising tide of a church choir. This was the song’s climax, the final full minute of music, one declaration of “no more” following after another, tying the senselessness of the street revenge to the national bloodthirst.
When I first saw that video I was shaken. This was a number fifteen pop single following up a number one pop single, and it spent twenty weeks on the pop charts. An artist known to have suffered the blows of urban neglect, street violence, addiction, and abusive relationships was making use of her personal history to diagnose a country deeply invested in denial. Today, exploring the most politically dangerous implications of what I already thought was a great record, that video still stands at an apex of my own personal history with music.
A WHITE BOY’S RECKONING WITH THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN
My experience with “No More Drama” fulfilled a promise I grasped sometime soon after I started covering popular music for Kansas City’s Pitchweekly and Dave Marsh’s newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential, when I heard Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” for the first time. That record’s unhinged rhythm with its sassy, commanding female vocals sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, but I got it, viscerally. This was female empowerment in the guise of both a dance song and a set of instructions to fulfill a woman’s needs. That record made me feel what I guess kids must have experienced hearing Little Richard or Elvis Presley for the first time—overcome by the idea of sexual liberation as the promise of rock and roll.
But much of the punk-influenced rock that greeted my adolescence shied away from straightforward love songs and could be downright prudish when it came to sex. (Even Prince’s persona maintained an ironic distance.) And I understood that sensibility. As a midwestern WASP male, I was most comfortable having sexuality tackled obliquely or couched in larger social and political concerns.
As Blige would do many times on her debut, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” made me uncomfortable, and it was all the more thrilling for it. It stirred something sexually confrontational I loved about Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, but it was different. Those women rockers played a certain kind of bad girl, equal to any male’s machismo, and always from a sort of undefined distance. At least to my ears, the black women aligned with hip hop closed the distance in a distinctly feminine way.
By the time Blige came on the scene, my intense identification with and attraction to black women artists had drawn me away from much interest in white boys with guitars. Of course I was working through my own racial ignorance on one level, but in a more immediate way, black women were talking about my most pressing personal issues. As a twenty-four-year-old married man, these artists hit me where I really lived.
A number one R&B hit single by Karyn White told me, “I’m not your superwoman,” forcing me to think about my expectations of women, particularly the woman I had married at twenty. A number two R&B hit by Miki Howard declared that love was “under new management,” hers, and I found an exhilaration in deferring to that strong feminine stance. Because marriage, particularly at a young age, can lead to a mountain of white lies, N.W.A. protégée Michel’le’s number two R&B call for “No More Lies” hit home, and when En Vogue went to number one R&B with “Lies,” drawing a parallel between bedroom dishonesty and that perpetuated by “the nation’s leaders as well as teachers,” I had to reexamine my own separation between the personal and the political.
Virtually every R&B woman had at least one such confrontation with a lover on every album, songs I came to think of as Sunday morning reckoning songs. Each of these records forced me to look at myself in the cold light of day. This was the late eighties, when hip hop was more political than ever before or since, and that spirit influenced all of R&B, so a white listener who engaged with this music was regularly invited to examine white privilege. The Sunday morning reckoning extended the self-study to family relationships. Spending hours being confronted with one’s own flaws sounds a little masochistic, but more visceral and exciting things were happening at the same time. A decade later, as an antiwar statement rooted in a desire for respect at home, Blige’s “No More Drama” showed the unlimited reach of the form.
But my love of a wide array of black women artists who ushered in Mary J. Blige’s career actually made me a little slow to warm up to Blige herself. When Blige appeared, I was particularly taken with the Atlanta hip hop/R&B trio TLC, who had exploded onto the pop music scene a few months before with the brash, frenetic, and multilayered hip hop assault “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” Blige arrived with a lot of hype other women didn’t receive. She appeared to be taken more seriously by the hip hop press because producer Combs had given her a starker production style, and her voice seemed less disciplined and therefore more stereotypically “authentic” (a concept I rejected). That sound as well as the media’s emphasis on her producer kept me at some distance. In retrospect, I know that means I allowed Blige to be twice victimized by her association with Combs, not giving her full credit for her work.
For my own spurious reasons then, I didn’t fully embrace Blige until she dumped Combs and made 1997’s Share My World. In the wake of TLC’s CrazySexyCool, she’d not only made a record that followed coherently after her street-savvy aesthetic, but she’d also outdone the leading pop trio at their own game, making a slick synthesis of hip hop/R&B that rang both more unified and more mature. To my ears, this was when the hyped Queen of Hip Hop Soul began to sound majestic.
It was a difficult time, just after the murders of the two rappers who best defined a reconciliation between rap’s political consciousness and its street credibility, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. The fact that they seemed to have both been annihilated by senseless acts of revenge was nothing short of tragic. In the wake of this violence and loss, Blige’s career became a testament to survival and the enduring power of love. In that sense, she’s continued to carry the torch for a generation of artists, of both genders, in R&B and rap. Almost twenty years down the line, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could have done the job half so well.
SEARCHING FOR THE SOURCE
By the summer of 2014, I’d finished a draft of this book. I felt good about what I’d written, but I knew I wasn’t done. I’d planned the book knowing I might not get access to Mary J. Blige herself. Still, I wanted to challenge conventional wisdom about how contemporary R&B is made, showing the complexity of the artistic process, by talking with as many of her collaborators as I could. To reach many of those people, I needed a nod from her handlers. After over a year of being passed around and (most often) simply ignored by Blige’s management, many doors remained closed to me.
I understood why. People were protective of Blige. Even I had grown protective of Blige, which made me not want to push too hard. I knew she’d had terrible press experiences at various points in her career, and 2013–2014 was a particularly controversial time in her life. The spring I began this book, she’d been hit with unpaid back taxes, and her contemporary Lauryn Hill went to jail on similar charges. Though Blige is notably always at work, this period saw her move at an unprecedented pace. While I wrote these pages, she put out three albums, acted in three different movies, and made dozens of TV appearances.
Still, one part of her untold story nagged hardest. I knew she’d spent a significant part of her childhood in Georgia, but profiles and interviews left the details very sketchy. I wanted to at least have a sense of this place and how it might have affected her, so I drove over a thousand miles to her southern childhood home. I’d tracked down a couple of relatives who were a little bit open to talking about the family history, but only a little. I made the drive because I sensed something inherently worthwhile in seeing this part of the country. I’d spent some time around Blige’s other worlds in New York, New Jersey, and, later, Los Angeles, but coastal Georgia was nothing more than an abstraction to me.
It was a good thing I was prepared for the worst because it took me about three hours talking to a handful of family members to arouse the suspicions of a family matriarch. I left the family’s home in Richmond Hill for Savannah worried that the few who’d talked with me would never get out of trouble with the rest of the family. (For the record, I never asked anyone specific questions about Mary J. Blige herself; that was a clear precondition in this tightknit family.)
The next day I found myself in Savannah’s Franklin Square Park on the phone with one of Blige’s cousins, the Reverend Lori Blige, a minister who I had been told sings “just like Shirley Caesar.” I decided to interview Reverend Blige about her own ministry, not about her famous cousin or even the family. I knew from local newspaper coverage that Reverend Blige suffered from lupus and that she was known throughout Savannah for her work helping the uninsured deal with medical issues. With a humility that seems a family trait, she downplayed these issues in our talk. Instead she chose to emphasize her plans to build a clinic focusing on the variety of issues surrounding dementia, a condition she felt went undersupported in our society. She had a soft, warm voice, but I could tell she was shy about saying too much because she, too, was concerned about where I was going with this Mary J. Blige story.
I got off the phone feeling lonesome but thankful for every little piece I’d gleaned from my conversations. Still, I’d hit a wall. I wasn’t going to get more participation without causing trouble among some kind people all trying to do the right thing. The moment I accepted that dead end, my surroundings began to speak.
In the square where I sat stood a monument to the more than five hundred Haitian soldiers who’d fought alongside the colonists in the American Revolution’s 1779 Battle of Savannah. The survivors went on to fight in their own 1804 Haitian Revolution against France, a slave-led rebellion opposed by the young US government. I found myself thinking about a passage I’d originally drafted as the opening to the book, Blige’s performance of the 150-year-old Stephen Foster parlor song “Hard Times” for the 2010 Hope for Haiti Now earthquake relief telethon. Of course, Blige had recorded with members of the Haitian immigrant act the Fugees, but I’d never considered the history of interaction between blacks in the coastal South and Haitians.
The African diaspora’s influence on Savannah would be made even more apparent when I took a tour of the church facing the monument, the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, established in 1777, the oldest black church in North America. The first minister of that church, Reverend George Liele, eventually fled slavery to set up another church in Jamaica.
I was there at two o’clock on a summer afternoon, and the church was filled with a couple of busloads of middle-aged and elderly black women, many in red hats. Together we learned how slaves erected the building on their own time at night in 1859. The woman tour guide told the visitors that slave women carried the materials up from the docks by torchlight, not quite joking that women’s superior strength made them well suited for the task. The church ladies nodded and smiled.
We were shown Underground Railroad messages that decorated each of the original wooden pews. We descended to the basement and took a look at the crawlspaces used by the Railroad, decorative cuts in the wood based upon African designs. We were told many details of the precarious existence of this congregation throughout most of the first century of its existence, the pastors themselves having been beaten in Savannah’s public squares.
Though she was born in the Bronx and moved to Yonkers, New York, by the age of ten, I knew Mary J. Blige spent much of her youth in both Savannah and Richmond Hill, just twenty miles south. All of the Bliges in America seem to come from Richmond Hill, but some family members said they have roots in South Carolina, a stone’s throw in the other direction from Franklin Square. Just standing in Franklin Square Park drove home how close Blige’s roots lie to not only the heart of this country but the birth of the black church and, by extension, of American music.
That’s why the Blige family roots, at least abstractly, seem important to the story of a Queen of Hip Hop Soul. After all, whether referencing Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s records from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, or James Brown’s roots in South Carolina and Georgia, talk of soul music is tied up in talk of the South, the battleground of the civil rights movement that fueled its spirit. At the same time, just as Franklin grew up in Motown and Brown rocked the Apollo in Harlem, soul music formed out of a dialogue between North and South. Hip hop had its migratory roots in Jamaican sound systems that made their way to the Bronx, where Blige was born. And rap’s southern side asserted itself alongside Blige’s career, hinted at by an Atlanta rap act that debuted the same year as Blige, Arrested Development.
Tidewater Georgia looks largely unchanged from old blackand-white photos of the activity surrounding Henry Ford’s winter home in the town then known as Ways Station. Richmond Hill was the name of Ford’s plantation, and Ford employed members of Blige’s family picking okra, butter beans, and lettuce. Other photos show the tall pines Bliges cut for lumber, turpentine, and plastics when they worked for the Ford sawmill.
This is land where hard-drawn social lines blur. In the nineteenth century, rice farming Africans knew their crop better than their owners, allowing for a degree of independence that preserved the Gullah (or Geechee) culture and accent. On any given Sunday or Wednesday or Friday, Blige attended not only a distinguished red brick Baptist family church with a tall, white steeple (the family’s graveyard across the street), but also the low, nondescript clapboard Holiness churches where a service’s fervor could literally rock the house. In the Richmond Hill museum, the black-only and white-only classroom photos told the segregation story, but a white curator recalled good times he had running with some of the Blige brothers. Everywhere I looked, a deeper interconnectedness emerged.
The unique qualities of this place suggest something about how Blige has reached a great cross section of Americans as well as the worldwide audience to whom she’s sold over fifty million albums. Blige grew up in urban poverty, but she knows the hidden, scattered poverty of the country. She knows the complexities of race relations from the concrete divisions in the city to the more subtle social distinctions that exist shoulder to shoulder in the South. Blige’s roots in rural Georgia suggest a wide-angle lens that has helped her repeatedly free herself from the artistic traps that come with financial and artistic success.
Of course, that trip to Georgia only enhanced my understanding of why Mary J. Blige speaks to so many, including the Oklahoma boy writing this book. The real story lies in an enormous amount of hard work, a quick mind, and a generous heart that, despite a history of ongoing struggle, reveals itself time and time again in her music (and in connections I strive to reveal in the following pages). The more I’ve gotten to know this woman’s dedicated personality, the more I’ve come to expect the self-awareness that gives her such a remarkable vision. She knows she stands for everyday women’s (and men’s) voices in music, just as she knows she maintains the legacy of hip hop. In other words, she knows the importance of her job, and she’s serious about getting it right. For all of these reasons, I’ve come to see Mary J. Blige as the most important musical artist to emerge in the past quarter century.
I wanted to give Mary J. Blige the sort of book-length consideration all too rarely seen regarding black women artists or artists rooted in hip hop. Though rare compared to their white contemporaries, memoirs and biographies of such artists are not uncommon, but the kind of analysis that drew me into rock writing tends to exist only in sweeping volumes by hip hop and R&B chroniclers such as Nelson George, Jeff Chang, Tricia Rose, Brian Coleman, and Craig Werner. One of the last decade’s great champions of analytic music writing about a wide variety of popular music, the single-album-centered 33⅓ Bloomsbury book series is slated to have released 122 titles by the time this book is published. One of those titles is about a black woman’s work (Aretha Franklin), and three of those titles are by male hip hop artists. With this book, I want to argue against the many assumptions that tend toward the neglect of contemporary black music, its fans, and the artistry of Mary J. Blige.
Honoring all concerned, may the following pages do her justice.
“Danny Alexander’s soulful, beautifully written book unravels the mystery of how a struggling young woman from Yonkers earned a place beside Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Aretha Franklin in the pantheon of African American song. Necessary reading for anyone interested in African American music, American culture, or the challenge of being human in a cold and heartless world.”
Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America
“I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. Real Love, No Drama recognizes Mary J. Blige as one of this era’s crucial artists and places her at the center of a profound story about race, gender, class, and American life in recent decades. An expert listener and writer, Danny Alexander has written a sophisticated and deeply soulful book that takes the music, its makers, and its audiences seriously. This is essential reading.”
Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South
“Real Love, No Drama is a marvelous telling of Mary J. Blige’s story, as well as a reflection of the many years Danny Alexander has spent studying, analyzing, and, above all, enjoying pop music made by female performers. To trace its evolution through Salt’n’Pepa to Mary J. Blige is a journey not many have had the instinct—or the acuity about race, in particular—to take. This book shows us the glory and the problems associated with living, for the first time in memory, in a pop world where women are the dominant voices.”
Dave Marsh, host of Sirius XM’s Kick Out the Jams and author of The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made