Mary J. Blige is one of the few constants in R&B’s recent history. While many of her contemporaries fell off after the modern iterations early 90s heyday, Blige continued to write and record at an impressive rate, merging with a new generation of artists and becoming the go-to girl for rap producers in search of that elusive crossover track. I wasn’t surprised when our interview turned up a stone cold professional: everything was handled efficiently and with a friendly tolerance, and Blige’s confidence is almost as intimidating as her impressive body of work. Unfortunately, it was over the phone so I couldn’t tell if she was covered in My Life and rocking some Melodies. – Matt Shea
You’ve released 11 albums so far. They’re all well regarded, but what are some of the key ways in which your approach to recording has changed over the years?
Well the process is really the same, because it’s always from the perspective of where I am based at the moment – mentally, spiritually – and where I’m going, what’s around me, what’s going on in my life, what’s going on in the person’s life sitting next to me or that’s around me all the time. So the process is really the same, because it just comes from a place of where we are realistically in life.
Away from your own albums, you were part of plenty of rap records. One of the biggest being Reasonable Doubt in 1996 with your contributions to “Can’t Knock the Hustle”. What was it like working on that track?
That was fun, because I was right in the epitome of what that record was about (chuckles). Although I was already a superstar in the business – I was onto my second album, I was onto the My Life album – I was still really, really eager to work with Jay because I’d heard so many great things about him and I’d heard so much on him already, so I respected him as a rapper, and it was just fun and an honor, even before he was the Jay-Z that we know now, to be on the record, because he was such an amazing rapper, you know?
Is that the favorite hook you’ve ever done for a rap song?
But I guess I’ve done so many. I’ve done “All I Need” with Method Man – let’s not forget that one. They’re probably my two favorites right there – that one with Method and the one with Jay.
You now work with your husband Kendu Isaacs in the studio…
Well he’s a producer and he’s produced a lot of my records, yes.
What’s that like, working with your partner in such a creative way?
The creative part of it is all beautiful. You’re creating – it’s a beautiful thing purely because you’re doing what you love.
Do you think that need for open communication in the studio flows over into your private lives as a couple?
I guess when you’re married to somebody some things are a little bit of a struggle. You have to agree to disagree or you’re just going to constantly disagree all the time, so you’re always going to run into a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with what you’re doing. But if you’re doing what you love, honestly, you can be non-biased and really, really have a good time creating with one another.
You’ve done a bit of acting over the last few years, and you’re set to play Nina Simone in a feature film next year. What was the appeal of that particular role?
Well I just fell in love with the character – when I found out who she was. Because I didn’t really know who she was! I knew her songs but always thought she was a man – I didn’t know this person was Nina Simone. And her voice is just like, ‘My god!’ I’d never heard anything like it, and her songs just make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Her voice is just amazing – so I’m probably one of her biggest fans now (laughs).
Was it hard to research for the role?
Well, the research was definitely hard because you have to find out the truth. A lot of the information that was given to me was wrong, and I had to go back and find family members, and sometimes you can’t find family members because for whatever reason they don’t want to turn up. So it’s been hard to hook up with the family
Is this a sign of a bigger stab at an acting career?
Well, I’m involved in the film version of Rock of Ages, which is now a play on Broadway, but they made it into an actual film. It’s about people becoming rockstars in the early 80s and I play – it’s not a raunchy role, but the lady who runs the call girl club [Justice Charlier]. I am the owner, but it’s a respectable place, a respectable role – it’s not bad.
You’ve released both a sunglasses line and a perfume line – how’s that been as an experience?
That’s been great. The perfume has been successful. We launched it on HSN and it did amazingly well. The sunglass line: every time we do it in store it sells out. It’s still selling and everything is going well, and everything is good!
You’re a lady of some pop cultural standing so the perfume probably makes sense, but why sunglasses?
Because they’re an extension of me as well. I only do things when they’re extensions of me. When you go back in my career and you dig up pictures of me from the “Reminisce” video, the “Be Happy” video – there are so many videos and so many pictures of me with sunglasses – they’re like my fixture, and that’s why I really wanted to do it. And then Jimmy Iovine – it was really his idea because he saw me at a wedding for Ron Fair, a producer who works at Interscope. I had on a pair of really hot Alexander McQueen glasses – these really hot glasses, and he just went crazy and said I looked like a Bond girl, (laughs) and before we knew it we were sitting in my hotel room discussing what our plan was for making sunglasses.
You could probably measure your success both in terms of albums and in terms of how many great singers – Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Ashanti, for example – who have cited you as a major influence. What matters more to you – the praise of your fans or the praise of your peers?
I mean it’s both, you know? It’s really both. Neither one of them is less important – they’re both exactly the same, because if you get the praise from your fans – I mean, that is more important, because the praise from your peers might not last as long (laughs). So, the praise from the fans is way more important than the praise from your peers, but the praise from your peers is still important!
The internet has changed things somewhat, but do you consider yourself more of a studio musician or a live musician?
I think honestly that I’m both. I don’t play instruments but I use my vocals as though they were instruments and if I’m in the studio producing something I can play with my mouth or with my vocals what it is that I want the horn to play, or what it is I want the piano or even the drum to play, you know?
What are the plans for the rest of 2011?
Well, I’m just gonna finish up the new album I’ve been working on, and then I guess do these movies!