Seventeen years ago, Mary J. Blige shook up the world of R&B when she released the record My Life. It ushered in a new sound: soul music over hip-hop beats. Instantly, Blige became known as the queen of hip-hop soul.
My Life was about pain — about Blige's rough childhood, abusive relationship and battles with addiction and depression. Seventeen years on, she's revisited that album. Her new record is called My Life II ... The Journey Continues. She says it's about strength.
"It's about strength, because there was so much pain on the My Life album — the first one," Blige says. "But there's been so much growth and evolution and strength gained through all the years of putting out albums. And the thing that we gained is strength and understanding. And that's what I want people to celebrate."
My Life II turned up this week on the Billboard chart of top-selling albums at No. 5. Blige spoke with All Things Considered guest host Guy Raz about going back for her GED, the way women react to her lyrics, and coming to terms with a turbulent past.
"All I could have done in my life is what I did: forgive my abuser, move on with my life and just try to make the best of what I have," she says. "So I'm comfortable with what and who I am."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. Seventeen years ago, Mary J. Blige shook up the world of R&B when she released the record "My Life." And she ushered in a new sound: the sound of soul music over hip-hop beats. And instantly, Mary J. Blige became known as the queen of hip-hop soul.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY LIFE")
MARY J. BLIGE: (Singing) If you looked in my life and see what I've seen. La-la-la-la. If you looked in my life and see what I've seen. La-la-la-la.
RAZ: This record, "My Life," was about pain, about Mary J. Blige's rough childhood and her battles with addiction and depression. Seventeen years on, she's revisited that album, a sequel of sorts. This one is called "My Life II: The Journey Continues."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT LEVEL")
BLIGE: (Singing) ...because tonight I'm ready, yeah. I'd rather be with my baby. I think it's time that me and him go to the next level. Go to the next level, yeah. Oh, I don't bother like crazy. I hope he's ready because we're going to go to the next level.
RAZ: Mary J. Blige has won Grammys in pop, rap, gospel and R&B. "My Life II" debuted this week on the Billboard charts at number five. And when we spoke with her, Mary J. Blige explained what it's all about.
BLIGE: Strength. It's about strength, because there was so much pain on the "My Life" album, the first one, but there's been so much growth and evolution and strength gained through all the years of, you know, putting out albums. And the thing that we gained is strength and understanding, and that's what I want people to celebrate because we were not celebrating strength and understanding or even life on the "My Life" album. We were just trying to figure out how we were going to dodge death.
RAZ: You open up with a song about how you feel inside. Tell me about that feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL INSIDE")
BLIGE: (Singing) I want to make you happy.
Well, "Feel Inside" is basically about a woman, any woman, and so many women have felt this, including myself, just - she cannot tell everyone how she's feeling, you know, in public. Everyone thinks her life is so great, think that she's being loved and respected at home. And the truth is that she can't tell anybody how terrible she feels because she's not being respected or paid attention to or probably even loved at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BLIGE: (Singing) Now, I was hoping we get through this together. Yeah, yeah yeah. You said you'll love me through all the times of stormy weather. Wasn't it you who said we'd be together for all time? But you (unintelligible).
RAZ: It's interesting because I've seen videos of some of your recent performances, and what's notable is you see a lot of women crying in the audience. Women - I mean, obviously, you have many, many fans who are men as well, but women connect with your music in a visceral way.
BLIGE: Well, women connect with my music in a visceral way and, you know, just period because I'm a woman, and I don't run away from that, and so I get every woman out there. I am every woman out there. And they honestly connect with me because I'm honest with all my feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL INSIDE")
BLIGE: (Singing) I gave you everything that I've got, watch my feelings walk on by. Every guess, simple try. This is how I feel inside, how I feel inside, how I feel inside. This is how I feel inside. This is how I feel...
RAZ: I want to ask you about your childhood. Your mom was a nurse. Your dad, he was a jazz musician. He left home when you were just a kid, and you've been public in your life about having been sexually abused as a child. You dealt with addiction and depression, and you sang about these things in different ways over the course of your career. But on this new record, it sounds like you've really reached a place where you've kind of come to terms with all of those things. Is that right?
BLIGE: That's absolutely right. I can't, you know, the things I can't change, you know, all I could have done in my life was what I did: forgive my abuser, move on with my life and, you know, just try to make the best of what I have, you know? So I'm in a place of, you know, I'm comfortable with what and who I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIVING PROOF")
BLIGE: (Singing) Anything you say to me and everything you do, you can't deny the truth because I'm the living proof. So many thoughts to fight, they just don't make it through, but look at me. I'm the living proof. Oh, yes, I am.
RAZ: I wanted to talk to you last year, actually, already because of an amazing story. You actually went back and managed to get your GED, the high school equivalency. I mean, you're successful. You're rich. You're respected. And yet, you felt like you needed to do this. Why? Why did you it?
BLIGE: Well, I didn't finish high school, and for years I felt like I just was embarrassed and ashamed about so many things. It was - even more embarrassed than when I couldn't articulate myself. It was even more embarrassing when I would watch other people articulate themselves and speak slowly and not blink and not stutter. And I still do all those things, but at least I can get my thoughts out now. And it gives me confidence. I have confidence now because I can sit here with you and not be afraid of how I'm going to answer your questions or...
RAZ: Were you...
BLIGE: ...not be afraid.
RAZ: Was there a time when you were afraid?
BLIGE: Absolutely. I was afraid because I was ashamed of, you know, ashamed of the fact that I couldn't articulate myself. I couldn't get the things out that I wanted to get out.
RAZ: It's amazing to hear that because what you sing about is - requires so much intelligence and thought and empathy, and yet you never thought of yourself that way.
BLIGE: I know it's weird. It's weird when you think about it, but I guess the only thing I really, really knew is what the streets and the world taught me. So I had to unlearn a lot of the negative stuff. I kept a lot of the stuff that is saving my career right now, which is common sense.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLIGE: You know, humility, manners.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "25/8")
BLIGE: (Singing) You ain't got to worry about me. No. Ain't no question at my loyalty. You've been there for me even when nobody cared enough to check to see if I was breathing. See, don't nobody really know me. Know me. You and me, we got history. So I give you a part for loving me, boy. Put your hand in my hand. I'll lead the way.
RAZ: This record is a journey as you aptly titled it, and you've traced that arc. Where are you going now?
BLIGE: I'm going to live further than this. I'm going to excel. I'm going to grow. I'm going to be better than what I am because I am still not perfect. I have so much more to learn. I have so much further to go. I don't feel complete about, you know, my life, and not in a negative way, but I just know in my spirit there's so much further to go. There's so much more to learn. There's so much more to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "25/8)
BLIGE: (Singing) Yeah, yeah. Every day, baby. Every night, baby. On a weekday. On any day. On every day, I'm alive, baby. I'ma love you. Help me sing it out.
RAZ: Mary J. Blige, thank you so much.
BLIGE: You're welcome. Thank you.
RAZ: That's Mary J. Blige. Her new record is called "My Life II: The Journey Continues."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "25/8") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.