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ELLIOTT: Before there was any such thing as American Idol, kids who aspired to singing careers had to find other paths to stardom. In 1989, a young girl from the New York projects stepped into a karaoke booth at a local mall and sang this song.

(Soundbite of Anita Baker tune)

As a kid, Mary J. Blige sang Anita Baker tunes. Today, it's her songs that young girls sing, dreaming of the big time. Blige is the reigning queen of hip-hop soul, but along with the grammys and the glitz, Mary J. Blige has been to some very dark places, and her music is a candid commentary on what she's been through. It's gone from hard-edged and painful, to more defiant and triumphant.

(Soundbite of Mary J. Blige singing)

Her latest album is The Breakthrough. Mary J. Blige joins me now from New York. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MARY J. BLIGE (Singer): Thanks for having me.

ELLIOTT: Now, a few years ago, you had this album called No More Drama and a lot of your fans sort of thought that was your breakthrough. Are you in a new different place now?

Ms. BLIGE: When you say no more drama, you realize who your worst enemy is, you realize it's you, you realize that only you can fix these things. But that's a lot of work. You gotta take your fist and bust through it and it hurts really bad. But at the end of the day I made a lot of progress. I'm actually able to see my issues and say, okay I'm prideful here, I gotta fix that. I'm stubborn, okay I gotta fix that. And even though I'm able to say it, its easier said than done.

ELLIOTT: You do get a little bit of flack sometimes for this redemptive theme, I guess you could call it, in some of your newer music. It's hard not to sort of take that personal. How do you do that?

Ms. BLIGE: Well, its like this. I can't live for you. I'm writing songs because I understand what you're going through because I've been through it and I can make 20 more really depressed albums, but I choose to do something different because my depression and my pain, people have no idea how much it hurts. Trying to fix yourself. Listening to people saying, Mary needs a hug everybody. And then, now that I've got my hug, they're saying, I wish she didn't get the hug. It's like, what do you really want, you know? What I've learned to do is really look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is not all about me. It's about some little girl that's watching me right now.

ELLIOTT: I read somewhere that you had this moment where you realized you were surrounding yourself with people who really weren't your friends at all. What was that about?

Ms. BLIGE: That was about environment. You know, when you're a celebrity, everyone wants to keep their jobs. So they will yes man you to death, tell you you can drink a gallon of liquor and do a pound of cocaine or whatever the case may be just so you can feel good about what you're doing so that they won't lose their job. So when you're pulled out of it and you get a chance to look at it, you're like, whoa, okay this is the reason why I can't really get to the place that I wanna be in my life, you know, successful, because no one around me is a leader and everyone is a follower.

ELLIOTT: Everybody pulling everybody down?

Ms. BLIGE: Basically, crabs in a barrel. They're just in it, spinning around because it's a comfort zone. It's comfortable to be ignorant.

(Soundbite of Mary J. Blige singing)

ELLIOTT: I read that you started singing as a kid in church and that you would also sing in talent shows. Was there some performance along the way where you started to think, hey, I think I can do this. I like this.

Ms. BLIGE: Let me see, I had performed at a club when I was a teenager. I sang one of Mariah Carey's songs, I think it was Love Takes Time, because I'm a fan of Mariah Carey's, I love her. So it was that performance at the club that night. The club was called Arthur's.

ELLIOTT: Help me remember that song, I can't remember that song. How did it go?

Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Love takes time to heal when you're hurting so much. Couldn't see that I was blind to let you go. I couldn't stand the pain...

That one. She, her songs gave us a lot of hope. And I finally got a chance to tell her, you played a part in saving our lives. Little project kids. We had nothing, sometimes, to live for, it felt like. And it was your music that saved our lives and made us wanna sing because you were like and angel and still are to us.

ELLIOTT: Tell me about what it was like where you grew up. Is it the Schlobohm projects, am I saying that right? It South Yonkers?

Ms. BLIGE: Yes, Schlobohm projects.

ELLIOTT: And you called them the Slowbomb?

Ms. BLIGE: Yeah, Slowbomb. Like a slow bomb. One way in and one way out. There was a couple of people that worked for a living and the majority of people were living on welfare checks. It's like making you conform to being an animal, almost. You're put in a situation where no one can survive. They do what they have to do to survive. My mother was a working mother at some point, and then it got rough for us.

(Soundbite of Mary J. Blige song)

ELLIOTT: This album seems to have a lot of songs that reveal parts of your past that were obviously pretty painful to you. For example, there's a song called Father in You where you actually say, when I was a baby I didn't get a hug from my daddy and that's why I need a hug from you.

Ms. BLIGE: Well, my father left us when we were four. But he would return and then leave.

ELLIOTT: He was a musician too, right?

Ms. BLIGE: He was a bass player and he played in a funk band. And they were trying to make it and be successful and they never really did it. And it's hard for a little girl to grow up without a father. Because you're dealing with a woman, my mother, who's already scarred because the man that she loved has walked out of her life and left her with two children that look just like the man, you know? And I was a sponge as a child and I would watch my mother and I would feel all the energy from her being sad. And so you walk away with that and you walk away not feeling good about yourself because that's all you saw when you were growing up..

ELLIOTT: You sing a duet with Bono at the end of this record. How did you pick the song U-2 song, One for your album?

Ms. BLIGE: Well about four years ago, Music Cares did a tribute to Bono. And I heard to learn the song One to sing that night. And they lyrics gave me chills.

(Soundbite of the song 'One' with Mary J. Blige and Bono)

Ms. BLIGE: Just the fact that he cares that much about anybody in the world to say that love is a temple, love is a higher law, I kept rewinding that part and the music and the way he was singing it just touched my heart.

(Soundbite of the song 'One' with Mary J. Blige and Bono)

ELLIOTT: How did your breakthrough change what we hear when we listen to Mary J. Blige on the radio?

Ms. BLIGE: Right now you're hearing a Mary that's confident. I'm freeing myself. I don't think any of us will be free completely. It's gonna take a lifetime to really get to that point.

ELLIOTT: Mary J. Blige. Her new record is The Breakthrough. We spoke with her from New York. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. BLIGE: You are very welcome.

(Soundbite of One)

ELLIOTT: For more songs from Mary J. Blige, go to our website, NPR.org.

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