Mary J. Blige is relaxing at a corner table in the West Chelsea Jamaican restaurant Negril, carefully picking at a plate of jerk shrimp and watching BET on a television hanging over the bar. "Look at Redman!" she screams to her sister LaTonya, who's chatting on a cell phone at the next table. Then she erupts into fits of laughter at the rapper's spot-on imitation of Jack Nicholson's "Heeere's Johnny" scene from The Shining. LaTonya looks up at the screen but barely cracks a smile. "Girl, you ain't never seen The Shining?" Mary asks, disappointed. "Oh, my God," she adds, wiping tears from her eyes. "I am going to kill him. This is too funny."
If such lightheartedness seems striking for an R&B singer who has built a multi-platinum career out of heartbreaking songs about despondent single mothers and vengeful abandoned lovers, it's only one of the ways Blige seems out of character. Usually opinionated to the point of abrasiveness, she stares benignly at Puff Daddy's ridiculously glitzy new video while her sister shakes her head in disgust. Known for her hard partying, she passes up a glass of rum punch, saying "I'd better not." And notorious for her ghetto-fabulous get-ups of fur and fancy hats, she's dressed down in simple hoop earrings and a loose, flower-print blouse; she looks more suburban mom than downcast diva.
Of course, Blige has never been afraid to play against type. While her peers invoke an upscale urban fantasia of caviar and Cristal, Blige reports from the streets about unpaid bills and unfaithful boyfriends. In both style and subject, her beats-driven, sample-oriented soul owes as much to reality-obsessed rap as to bedroom-eyed modern R&B ("I'm a singer who thinks like a rapper," she says). Her confrontational style has gotten her into trouble -- she nearly got into a fistfight with Veronica Webb when the model was asking her questions for an Interview story -- but it's also helped make her an icon of uncompromising hip-hop femininity. Blige's fans, who bought more than 200,000 copies of her new album its first week in stores, simply call her "Mary," as if she were a close friend from the neighborhood.
On her new album, which is also simply called Mary, Blige sounds as though she's finally calmed down enough to come to terms with her tough childhood and newfound fame. There are plenty of despairing moments -- "No Happy Holidays," for example -- but also uplifting songs like the Lauryn Hill-produced "All That I Can Say." Blige says the tempered optimism of Mary was influenced by Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, and she recorded a version of Wonder's "As" with George Michael. (Blige says the song was left off the completed album because of Michael's bathroom arrest -- "The record company was judging his personal life, and I couldn't get with that" -- but will be a single in Europe.) "It's sorta dark, but there's hope in that darkness," she says. "You either learn from your experiences or go back and do the same thing, and I learned from my experiences."
The earliest of those experiences, like those of the rappers who influenced her, informed the rough-hewn R&B that made her "the queen of hip-hop soul." She grew up in Yonkers's infamous Schlobohm projects (nicknamed "Slowbomb"), raised by her mother after her father, a bassist in a funk band, walked out on the family. She sang in the church choir for much of her childhood but dropped out at 16 when she began hanging around with the tough kids from the neighboring School Street projects (rapper DMX was an early friend) and doing drugs ("I tried everything except for smoking crack," Blige says matter-of-factly).
When Blige was 18, a demo she recorded for fun in a White Plains mall found its way to Uptown Entertainment CEO Andre Harrell, who signed her at the urging of upstart A&R man Sean "Puffy" Combs. As producer of her first two albums, What's the 411? and My Life, Combs helped her invent the sample-heavy sound that reinvigorated urban radio and became a blueprint for nineties hip-hop and R&B. Blige's duets with the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man and Ghostface Killah set the trend for collaborations between rappers and R&B songbirds like Mariah Carey. Perhaps more importantly, her take-no-shit attitude toward men ("I should have left your ass a long time ago," she sings on "Not Gon' Cry") influenced female rappers like Lil' Kim and inspired battle-of-the-sexes anthems like TLC's "No Scrubs" and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills."
Blige's personal style -- a previously unthinkable blend of homegirl flash and Gucci and Fendi chic -- helped bring upscale R&B closer to the baggy-pants world of hip-hop, but she's no longer interested in the living-large aesthetic she helped popularize. "I feel like, so what -- you made it," she says angrily. "I'm from the element of the streets that says that once you've made it, it's yours. But keep it to yourself. We know you have a car and we know that you're rich, we know that you got bitches and all that shit, but who cares?"
Blige's new groundedness also explains her feelings about the transformation of Whitney Houston (with whom Blige performed on VH1's "Divas Live '99") from the vacuous pop singer of "How Will I Know?" to the wronged soul diva of "It's Not Right But It's Okay." "She just ripped it down," Blige says, pausing over a forkful of macaroni and cheese. "Once you're out there, there's no need for the pretty-girl shit. Hold back? Hold back for what? Your people are out there! It's time for ugly faces, sweat, spit flying -- you gotta get it going on."
Blige wants to remain that unpolished even as she reaches out to the mainstream: She recruited Elton John to play piano on her new album, appeared with Eric Clapton at a recent Madison Square Garden benefit concert, and is set to star with rapper Q-Tip in the film Prison Song. "I am every young girl in every hood," Blige says. "The fans understand that whatever they're going through in their lives, I'm probably going through it, too -- and then some. But whatever happens, we're gonna get each other through it. We're gonna cry at my concert, we're gonna be mad, we're gonna go through the emotions that we're having, you know what I mean?" She pauses to catch her breath. "It's not just songs and glamour. It's sweat, blood, broken toes, and mistakes. . . . It's life."