On the chorus of her latest single, I Am, Mary J. Blige sings in her riveting voice: Ain't nobody gonna touch you better... more than I am. Since breaking through with her first R&B charting single and first No. 1 in 1992, You Remind Me, few performers have touched fans' inner emotions quite like Blige.
Nearly 20 years later, that emotional connection shows no signs of fraying. The nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter -- who has earned such sobriquets as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and the Empress of Soul -- returns December 21 with her ninth studio album, Stronger (Matriach/Geffen/Interscope).
Produced and co-written by Stargate, I Am debuted at No. 46 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Not only was the bow the singer's best start since 2007, but it also marked her 17th top 50 debut as a lead artist -- the most by a female -- and her 59th appearance overall among women, second only to the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (99).
In addition to Stargate, Blige enlisted the production and songwriting talent of Ryan Leslie, Polow Da Don, the Runners, Ne-Yo, Akon, Bryan-Michael Cox, Rodney Jerkins, the Stereotypes, D'Mile and Geffen chairman Ron Fair. Guests on the set include Trey Songz, Drake (the previously released track The One) and T.I. Appearing as a bonus song on the album is the title track, a previously issued single from the More Than a Game soundtrack.
On the heels of performing I Am at the November 22 American Music Awards, Blige is gearing up for a series of performances. Fans will be able to catch Blige on The Jay Leno Show (December 17), Jimmy Kimmel Live! (December 18), the Christmas in Washington special with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (December 20), Today (December 22) and The View (December 23). On the retail front, Blige taped an episode for Wal-Mart's Soundstage promotion.
Blige is also busy on the entrepreneurial front. Her Matriarch Records recently released the original motion picture soundtrack to the critically acclaimed film Precious. In addition to co-writing a song specifically commissioned for the soundtrack with Raphael Saadiq, I Can See in Color, Blige doubled as executive producer of the set, which features previously recorded tracks by Jean Carn, Queen Latifah and Labelle.
In the meantime, Blige and her manager and husband, Kendu Isaacs, are launching Matriarch Entertainment to develop TV and film projects. Blige's acting roles have included parts in The Ghost Whisperer, Entourage and, most recently, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself.
Two Blige product lines are rolling out in the coming year: her Melodies line of sunglasses in association with Geffen/Interscope and the My Life fragrance through her partnership in the Brooklyn-based natural beauty products company Carol's Daughter. But beyond music and her roles as a businesswoman and actress/producer, it's Blige's work with FFAWN (the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now) and the recent opening of the first Mary J. Blige Center for Women in her hometown of Yonkers, N.Y., that really stokes her fiery passion.
Billboard: What was your mind-set when you began working on Stronger?
Mary J. Blige: I always say that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I honestly believe that. And I'm the type of celebrity who can't not talk about the trials I've been through. No matter how successful you become, you always end up finding out there's something in you that needs to be purged. You hit a valley, another trial. It hurts so bad that you have to go through something like this again.
But people are people, and you will have to go through things as long as you live on planet Earth. When you go through these situations, it's what you learn about yourself that gets you out of them as well as the responsibility you take about that particular lesson. And once you come out of that, you're definitely a stronger individual than you were before. The strength in that is learning how to forgive and move on. That's a serious lesson. As is learning how to love yourself even more to another level, where you don't expect or need anybody to make you feel good about yourself. That's why I named the album Stronger. That's what I had to learn from this trial I was in, another self-love trial.
Billboard: Was there anything in particular that set this trial in motion?
Blige: I don't want to go into any details about that. But I do have days when I'll run around like my life is over. And what makes me happy is when I can come out of those situations feeling like I've learned something.
Billboard: How would you describe your evolution as a singer-songwriter from 1992 until now?
Blige: Each and every time, I gain more wisdom about speaking from every place I learn from. There's really no difference. It's just me continuing to grow.
Billboard: Speaking of which, fans may be surprised that you're one of the guests on classical artist Andrea Bocelli's holiday album. How did that come about?
Blige: He requested me. (laughs) I knew his voice was amazing, so I said, Yes, absolutely.
Billboard: Since you've logged your first soundtrack under your label, what other projects can we expect from Matriarch?
Blige: LaNeah (Menzies, who shares a writing credit on I Can See in Color and on Kanye West's Love Lockdown) has joined the Matriarch roster, with her debut album slated for spring 2010. Other than that, we're trying to wrap up a few deals with several more artists. I don't want to share too much about that until everything is signed.
Billboard: Describe what it felt like to open the first Mary J. Blige Center for Women.
Blige: Opening that center is one of my greatest achievements because it's something I've always wanted to do for other women. It's part of the charitable organization I co-founded with Steve Stoute in 2008, Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now. Our initiative is to educate, encourage and empower women. Yonkers is where I grew up and saw women destroyed, both physically and mentally. So this center is beautiful for me because maybe those women's children or their children's children can go there and get help. I'm hoping to see FFAWN and Mary J. Blige Centers all over the world. Outside of music, that's probably the one thing to which I will devote a lot of my time.
Billboard: You've mentioned your wish to do a biopic about Nina Simone. Is that any closer to happening? What other film and TV projects are you developing?
Blige: Yes. (Talent agency) WME, (TV/film writer/producer) Cynthia Mort and I are now moving forward on The Nina Simone Story. It's been a long time coming.
We're also working on a film, which the Lifetime Network just picked up. It's about Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's wife, and Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King's wife, and the lives they led being the women behind such important men. It's really deep: Their lives are different, but both women also go through the same things at the same time. I don't want to give away too many details about it, but it's going to be an important film.
Billboard: After almost 20 years in music, what continues to drive you?
Blige: Honestly, it goes back to my fans. I have a responsibility to them, and they let me know that it's a responsibility. I read things all the time from them like, Please keep doing what you doing. Or I'm listening to 'Growing Pains' right now and it's getting me through my day. It's just the things people say that connect me with their lives ... that keeps me going.
All this could be gone today or tomorrow if I were to act like I did it all by myself. It's God first and then my fans. They help me do what I'm doing; they're the reason why I am where I am. And I always acknowledge them in that. I've never been the type of person to become full of myself. I've never known how to do that because when we were growing up, if you even showed out a little, someone would try to take you out. So I guess the balance in that is what it taught me: to stay humble and not count all your chickens before they hatch. To just stay on a level where people can relate to you and you can relate to them.