When Mary J Blige recorded herself singing 'Caught Up in The Rapture', by Anita Baker, into a karaoke machine in a shopping mall in White Plains, New York, little did she know it would be the catalyst to her groundbreaking music career.
The tape found its way into the hands of Uptown Records chief, Andre Harrell, who signed the talented 17-year-old instantly.
Taken under the wing of up-and-coming producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs, her first album ‘What’s The 411?’ combined traditional R & B sounds with gospel and blues-inspired vocals, and set them against rap, hip-hop and high-tech funk. It defined “ghetto fabulous” and was critically well received.
Blige had sass, wore combat boots, talked trash – in short, she was a street-tough woman who played the boys at their own game.
Her next album, ‘My Life’, was a highly personalised effort, touching on her real-life pain of drug abuse and physically abusive relationships. Despite a Grammy nomination as best R & B album, it fared less well. Amidst accusations of being increasingly unreliable and demanding, she severed ties with Combs and defected to RCA.
Following the move, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as producers, she released ‘Share My World’ in 1997. While Blige had shed the more confrontational aspects of her music and critics complained of the more conventional soul sound, the album hit No.1 in the Billboard charts.
Two years later, Blige’s transition to the music mainstream was complete: her album ‘Mary’ featured compositions by Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diane Warren and a duet with Aretha Franklin.
A more contented Blige reaped commercial success with the triple-platinum 2001 release, ‘No More Drama’. Alongside her music career, she filmed several anti-drug public service messages and has tirelessly raised money for AIDS charities.
In 2003, a reunion with Sean Combs produced her ‘Love and Life’ album. Aged thirty-two, she confirmed her artistic development by writing 17 out of the 18 tracks, tellingly one song was titled ‘Finally Made It’.
Over the course of her career to date Blige has thrilled her fans in a number of live music tours, which took her music to an ever growing audience. Her first outing in 1998 was followed by ‘The Mary Show Tour’ (2000) and the ‘No More Drama Tour’ (2002), which gave way to the ‘Love & Life Tour’ of 2004.
‘The Breakthrough Experience Tour’ (2006) came soon after she released her 2005 album ‘The Breakthrough’. Her eighth studio album, ‘Growing Pains’, was released in December 2008 and flew straight to number two on the Billboard 200, selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week in the US, before hitting the top spot in the second week. The album’s lead single ‘Just Fine’ earned a Grammy Award nomination for best female R&B vocal performance.
Naturally, the success was followed by the ‘Growing Pains European Tour’ (2008) and the ‘Heart of the City Tour’ with Jay-Z, with the ‘Love Soul Tour’ rounding off Blige’s live performance duties for the year.
In January 2009, before releasing her ninth studio album entitled ‘Stronger with Each Tear’, Blige had the enviable honour of performing at the Lincoln Memorial following president Barack Obama’s inauguration. She has released two studio albums since, 'My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act1)' in 2011 and 'A Mary Christmas' in 2013. She also recorded the soundtrack to 'Think Like A Man Too' in 2014.
Blige married Kendu Isaacs, the man she credits with reconnecting her to her Christian faith and who has helped her stay clean and sober, in December 2003. Her home, a New Jersey mansion, may be just a river across from the projects of the Bronx where she grew up, but Mary J Blige has travelled much further on her personal journey.