(Soundbite of song, "Family Affair")
Ms. MARY J. BLIGE (Singer): (Singing) Hmm. Oh.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Switching gears to beat now, that song is called "Family Affair". It's one of the biggest hits from R&B singer Mary J. Blige. She is up for eight Grammys at this Sunday's Grammy Awards. That is more than any other artist. Mary J. has been topping urban and pop music charts for more than a decade.
NPR's Christopher Johnson has a profile on the singer her fans call Ms. Mary.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Mary J. Blige is doing her thing. The R&B star had an incredible year in '06. Her album "The Breakthrough" sold more than 6 million copies around the world. Blige just carted home nine Billboard trophies and two American Music Awards. She could clean up at the Grammys, too. Her eight nominations include Record and Song of the Year for "Be Without You." That hit spent a record-breaking 15 straight weeks at the top of R&B charts.
(Soundbite of song, "Be With You")
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Oh, put your hands up. Hands up. Look him right in his eyes, and tell him that you're too strong for too long.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) And I can't be without you, baby.
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Can't be without you, baby. And I'll be waiting…
JOHNSON: Over the past few years, the beautiful Ms. Mary has started fashion runways, shown up on TV and off Broadway, and then featured on more than a dozen magazine covers. Vibe, an urban music and culture monthly, chose Mary for the front of their 150th issue next month.
Vibe's editor in chief Danielle Smith has been following Mary since the singer's career took off 15 years ago. Smith says all the attention Mary's getting is long overdue.
Ms. DANIELLE SMITH (Editor in Chief, Vibe magazine): I don't see how it didn't happen sooner. She is a gift to hip-hop fans, and she is a gift to R&B fans. But she's a gift, really, to everyone. Maybe she has on a cuter dress now, but you listen to the albums, and it's always been the same beauty, the same grace and the same soul.
JOHNSON: Mary talked about a new image in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. She explained that her new album title marks a relatively new phase in her life.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")
Ms. BLIGE: "The Breakthrough" is the self-love. If we believe in negative things about yourself…
Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (TV Host): Yeah.
Ms. BLIGE: That's what's going to happen. If we believe in positive things about yourself, that's just going to happen. I believe that I'm smart. I'm beautiful. I'm strong. I'm loved.
JOHNSON: Ms. Mary's put in work to get that secure. Life started out rough for the Bronx native, who grew up in some dangerous projects in New York. She dropped out of high school and spent her idle time at a local mall.
That's where the 17 year old cut a karaoke tape in 1988 that eventually made its way to the head of Uptown Records. Her break came when producer Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs helped Mary craft her debut disc, "What's the 411?" It went double-platinum, thanks to hit singles like "You Remind Me". That song was the jam back in the summer of '92, and eventually went number one on Billboard's R&B chart.
(Soundbite of song, "You Remind Me")
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) You remind me, you remind me, you remind me. You remind me. Oh, baby…
JOHNSON: When Mary came out in the early '90s, Mariah, Whitney and Janet were among the reigning young R&B stars, but nobody was mixing heavy, love-sick soul with knocking hip-hop beats quite like Mary. She was the female soul singer showing up in combat boots on "Yo! MTV Raps", moving with as much swagger as her duet partner, then rap star Grand Puba. It was obvious how Mary got her crown as the queen of hip-hop soul.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) I know our love was meant to be.
GRAND PUBA: (Rapping) Hey, yo, Mary Blige is something kind of special.
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) Love is a knife, and life is a mystery. You're very special.
GRAND PUBA: (Rapping) Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. Yeah.
JOHNSON: Mary's second album, "My Life", was bigger than her first, selling more than 3 million copies. Unlike 411, Mary co-wrote most of the tracks on this heavier, moodier, more emotional disk. Listen to "My Life", and it becomes clear: Mary was going through some things, including abusive relationships, heavy drug addiction and depression.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) If you looked into my life, oh, you will see I'm so through (unintelligible). Do know what to do or say.
JOHNSON: As Mary fought some serious pain, her name just got bigger. She did music for TV and movies, and took home her first Grammy in '96 for "You're All I Need to Get By", a duet with rapper Method Man. Through the late '90s, Mary dropped three more multi-platinum disks and headlined her first North American tour.
The millennium brought success in her personal life, as Mary kicked her addictions, started going back to church and entered a steady, stable romance. Today, Mary's sound and style have led critics to rank her among soul divas Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. Editor Danielle Smith says fans love Mary because she's just real. She's open about her past and about her climb out of the abyss. And to Smith, that's the reason Mary shines.
Ms. SMITH: Mary has done a lot of stumbling, but I think that it just makes her all the more human. and she always says pretty much at some point in the interview - when someone says well, Mary, you're just so great - she always says some version of look, I'm just trying to get it together.
JOHNSON: Chances are, the queen of hip-hop soul is busy getting herself together for a big night at the Grammys this weekend. Ms. Mary recently said she has eight acceptance speeches to write, one for each trophy she's hoping to take home this Sunday. Christopher Johnson, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. BLIGE: (Singing) She's been down and out, she's been wrote about, she's been talked about constantly. She's been up and down, she's been pushed around, but they held her down (unintelligible). She has no regrets, she accepts the past, all these things they help to make she. She's been lost and found, and she's still around, there's a reason for everything. Yeah.
You know I've been holding on, tried to make me break, but I still stay strong. Put my life on the (unintelligible), just so you can tell me (unintelligible). Don't take me as I am.
BRAND: There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.