The Evolution of Mary J. Blige

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Photo:  Andrea Raffin (Shutterstock)
Photo: Andrea Raffin (Shutterstock)

As a teenager in the 90s, I almost always had a Mary J. Blige CD on repeat (yes, I said CD). Her music got me through painful breakups and inspired me to get out there and “Be Happy” rather than sobbing in my room. The R&B diva known as The Queen of Hip Hop Soul has been doing her thing for 30 years, and she’s showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, she’s added acting, producing and wine making to her list of talents. From the girl who starting singing in church to the woman with nine Grammys and a slew of chart-topping hits, let’s take a look at the evolution of Mary J. Blige.

Born in the Bronx

Mary J. Blige was born on January 11, 1971 in the Bronx, NY, to Cora and Thomas Blige. After her parents separated, Mary and her mom moved from the Bronx to the Schlobohm Houses public housing project in Yonkers. The singer and actress has been open about the violence and abuse she witnessed as a child. “All the women around were being beaten by men. Their self esteem was low; these are the women you’re watching every single day. I’ve seen women destroyed. I’ve heard their screams through the walls as a child from being abused by men. And so that really made everything worse. By the time I was a teenager, I was crazy,” she said In a 2011 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.

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1988 - The Tape That Sealed The Deal

For Mary, singing in her church provided an escape from the violence around her. But eventually, she wanted the rest of the world to hear her voice. She recorded herself singing Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” at a karaoke machine at the mall. She sent the tape to record labels with no response until it caught the attention of Andre Harrell, CEO of Uptown Records, in 1988. He was so impressed with Mary’s vocals that he signed her to the label immediately.

1992 - “What’s The 411?”

With her record deal in place, Mary started out singing background vocals for other artists. But in 1992, she began working with producer Sean “Diddy” Combs on her debut album, “What’s the 411.” The album put Mary on the map with tracks like “Reminisce” and her version of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s hit, “Sweet Thing.” But after seeing her first video for the hit single, “Real Love,” girls everywhere were trying to imitate her style, rocking baseball jerseys and biker shorts. The album spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.

1994 - “My Life”

Still riding the wave of success from What’s the 411, Mary dropped her second album, “My Life,” in 1994. Diddy got executive producer credits, but this time, Mary got to show off her songwriting skills, writing or co-writing nearly every song on the album, including the deeply personal title track. This triple platinum-selling album came in at 126 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time in 2020.

1995 - Give That Girl a GRAMMY

By 1995, Mary J Blige was a household name. But now, the industry was starting to take notice. She won her first GRAMMY for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “I’ll be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” a duet with Method Man.

2001 - “No More Drama”

Mary released her fifth studio album, “No More Drama,” in 2001. And this time, she worked with some of the hottest producers in the industry, including The Neptunes, Missy Elliot and Dr. Dre, who produced “Family Affair,” a track that is just as hot in the club as it is at a backyard cookout.

2001 - “Walk This Way” to the Super Bowl

Mary’s 2022 Super Bowl halftime appearance wasn’t the first time she’d been on stage at the big game. The R&B diva performed at the 2001 Super Bowl with Aerosmith, ‘NSync, Britney Spears and Nelly. But if you blinked, you might have missed her. She appeared near the end of the performance to sing along to “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith.

2003 - Mary Gets Married

Mary J. Blige & Kendu Isaacs at the 2nd Annual Mary J. Blige Honors Concert on May 1, 2011 in NYC
Mary J. Blige & Kendu Isaacs at the 2nd Annual Mary J. Blige Honors Concert on May 1, 2011 in NYC

In 2003, Blige found her own “Real Love” when she married Kendu Isaacs. But the love didn’t last long. The couple separated in 2016 and finalized their divorce two years later. Blige talked to Angie Martinez about when she knew things weren’t working out. “You start to realize that this man doesn’t want you, and he’s just gone all the time, and you’re by yourself in the relationship,” she said. The two didn’t have children of their own, but Mary was a stepmother to Isaacs’ three children from a previous relationship.

2009 - I Can Do Bad All By Myself

 Mary J. Blige attends the New York premiere of “Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself”
Mary J. Blige attends the New York premiere of “Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself”

In 2009, Mary acted in the Tyler Perry film I Can Do Bad All By Myself alongside Gladys Knight, Taraji P. Henson and of course, Tyler Perry. In an interview with CNN, Blige says she was nervous about appearing on the big screen. “I was definitely nervous because acting is not my first profession, so I had to go and get an acting coach and really figure this thing out. It helped a lot. It relaxed me to have a little more information about it. And I find that actors are highly underrated; they don’t get all the credit they deserve because this is a hard job. That’s a hard job,” she said.

2012 - Rock of Ages

Mary rocked a curly afro wig and 80s attire when she appeared in the musical film Rock of Ages in 2012 with Tom Cruise and Russell Brand. Mary plays Justice, the owner of a gentleman’s club. You may not want to sit through the whole film. But if you watch any part of it, you must watch Mary J. put a soulful spin on Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” in a duet with Julianne Hough.

2012 - The Burger King Commercial

Mary J made an appearance in a controversial Burger King commercial in 2012. In the ad, Blige sings about a fried chicken wrap to the tune of her hit song “Don’t Mind.” Mary got all kinds of heat for the ad, which critics said played into negative racial stereotypes. “I want to apologize to everyone that was offended or thought that I would do something so disrespectful to our culture. I would never do anything like that purposefully. I thought I was doing something right. So forgive me,” she said in an interview with Angie Martinez.

2013 - Betty & Coretta

Angela Bassett, Ruby Dee and Mary J. Blige attend the premiere of “Betty & Coretta”
Angela Bassett, Ruby Dee and Mary J. Blige attend the premiere of “Betty & Coretta”

Mary got a chance to play Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X in 2013. The Lifetime movie Betty & Coretta told the story of the widows of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Angela Bassett co-starred in the film as Coretta Scott King.

2018 - Awards Season Sensation

The 2018 awards season was special for Mary J. The Golden Globes recognized her for her singing and acting talent. She received a Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture nom for her role in the Netflix period drama, Mudbound and a Best Song Motion Picture nomination for her song “Mighty River,” which was featured in the film. That same year, she also received Best Supporting Actress and Best Song Oscar nominations. Florence, Mary’s character, is the wife of a sharecropper who has returned from World War II.

2018 - “God Put My Name on a Star”

Mary J. Blige and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs attend the ceremony honoring Mary J. Blige with a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame
Mary J. Blige and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs attend the ceremony honoring Mary J. Blige with a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame

In 2018, Blige got the ultimate birthday present – a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She received her honor at a ceremony that took place on her 47th birthday. “I am so grateful,” Mary said. “On this day, my birthday, God put my name on a star.”

2020 - Getting into the Wine Game

In 2020, Mary J got into the wine game, launching her Sun Goddess Wines brand. The brand makes three varieties, a Pinot Grigio Ramato, Sauvignon Blanc and Prosecco. The name, Mary says, was inspired by a childhood nickname her mother gave her.

2020 - She’s Got Power

Photo:  Jamie McCarthy (Getty Images)
Photo: Jamie McCarthy (Getty Images)

Mary signed on to play drug queenpin Monet in the Starz series, Power Book II: Ghost in 2020. Although her character has to be tough to run a notorious drug cartel, Mary’s co-stars say they love working with her in real life. “Working with Mary is dope. She’s so cool,” co-star Michael J Rainey Jr. told The Hollywood Reporter. “We talk about damn near everything. Just being able to be in the presence of a legend and she’s just there talking to you like she’s your homegirl.”

2021 - A Look at Her Life

Mary J. Blige attends the “Mary J Blige’s My Life” New York Premiere at Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 23, 2021
Mary J. Blige attends the “Mary J Blige’s My Life” New York Premiere at Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 23, 2021

In the 2021 Amazon Prime doc, My Life, Mary J. lets viewers take a look at the events in her life that inspired the songs on her 1994 album. Diddy, Nas and Taraji P. Henson are just a few of the celebrities who appear in the film.

2022 - “Good Morning Gorgeous”

In 2022, Mary J. blessed fans with her 14th studio album, “Good Morning Gorgeous.” And she got some help from some pretty famous friends. Dave East, Usher, Anderson .Paak and H.E.R. were among the artists who lent their talent to the 13-track collection.

2022 - All-Star Super Bowl

Photo:  Kevin C. Cox (Getty Images)
Photo: Kevin C. Cox (Getty Images)

Mary J brought the house down at the 2022 Super Bowl in a star-studded halftime show. A celebration of 90s hip-hop, the show included Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem. But even with all of that top-notch talent, Mary managed to shine, literally. She wore a blinged-out bodysuit made with 10,000 Swarovski crystals.

2022 - Real Love, the Movie

In March 2022, it was announced that Mary J would be the executive producer on a Lifetime movie entitled Real Love, inspired by the hit of the same name that made her famous. The drama is based on a young girl who goes off to college for the first time and falls in love with a classmate despite her parents’ disapproval.

2022 - “Strength of a Woman” Festival

Photo:  Paras Griffin (Getty Images)
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images)

Things just keep getting better for the Queen of Hip Hop Soul in 2022. She partnered with Pepsi and Live Nation Urban on the “Strength of a Woman Festival and Summit” in May. Ticket holders were treated to workshops, panel discussions, a gospel brunch and lots of great music. Special guests included Chaka Khan, Xcape and Ella Mai.

2022 - Icon Status

Photo:  Derek White (Getty Images)
Photo: Derek White (Getty Images)

Mary J. Blige will receive the Icon Award at the 2022 Billboard Music Awards. After learning she would receive the award, Mary expressed her appreciation for the honor that only ten other artists have received. “Through it all, I always, one way or another, gravitated back to my first love, music. To be recognized in this way at this moment, with the Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards, is an incredible honor and one that I am truly humbled by,” Blige said. And she’ll be in good company. Prince, Stevie Wonder and Janet Jackson have all received the award for their careers.