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Mary J. Blige

No obstacles

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By Gary Graff  
artist

Mary J. Blige broke through a long time ago -- back in 1991, when her Puff Daddy-produced debut What's the 411? sold three million copies and ordained the Bronx-born Blige as the uncontested Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Fifteen years and a half dozen albums later she's still on top, reminding us of her dominion with The Breakthrough, which, with its chart-topping debut, turned in the best-selling first week for a female R&B artist ever, and has sold more than four million copies worldwide. The album's first single, "Be Without You," set its own record as the longest run (15 weeks) atop Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart. As she sings on the new album, she is "MJB da MVP" and she "ain't goin' nowhere."

Q: So what is the breakthrough of this album?

Blige: It's about self-preservation, getting yourself together, fixing your life, fixing your career, mentally, physically, spiritually, just breaking through all of the obstacles that hold you back.

Q: Like what?

Blige: The obstacle that's been holding me back for the longest time has been me. I've been holding myself back for such a long time just by not believing in myself and believing what everybody else said about me and just now understanding that people are gonna have opinions, and if I don't accept me and love myself for who I am, then who will? That's a breakthrough in itself, 'cause it's so hard to do that when the rest, the negative, is all you've ever know.

Q: You've dealt with well-publicized addictions and abusive relationships over the years. How are you feeling these days?

Blige: I'm probably in the best shape that I've ever been in in my life. I'm really healthy. I make sure I'm not stressed out over a lot of things. I'm trying to fix my life and get myself together.That's what "The Breakthrough" is -- it's understanding it's about more than just suffering. It's about actually living and not just existing.

Q: Can you write and sing from a place of happiness?

Blige: Yes, it was easy to go there. That's where I'm headed and that's where I am, but there's a whole other level of that that I have to get to, and that level is where I'm headed. This is just the work to get to that part...where nothing bothers you and nothing is stressing you out. That might take a lifetime, but that's where I'm headed.

Q: Who are your career models?

Blige: I'm gonna say two people -- Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. Diana Ross had the best of both words. She was singing, people loved her, and then she was an actress. And Aretha Franklin was just the most incredible soul singer to ever exist, and still is.

Q: Are there any acting plans in your future?

Blige: Yeah, there's a lot of things coming up. I've got a lot of scripts. The Nina Simone thing is still there. I guess the director and producer of the film are still trying to figure out what they want to do. I'm just reading the script for it now.

Q: Besides The Breakthrough you've done a lot of guest appearances lately -- with LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Bono, Hot Rod. Do you enjoy those?

Blige: I do. I have so much fun; I have fun doing what I do, but that's like, my fun moment. LL Cool J I've been a fan of for years and I totally respect him and what he's done. And this new Hot Rod record ("Easy") is insane, like, the record is so hot -- to me, anyway. When I hear something like that, I think like a rapper, "I need to get on that!"

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.