Over the course of her 23-year career, Mary J. Blige's hip-hop inflected R&B has become synonymous with soul-baring honesty and a roller-coaster range of emotions. Seeking a new sound for her 13th release—hot on the heels of a guest vocal spot on Disclosure's remix of "F For You" and a gospel-flavored duet with Sam Smith—Blige migrated to London for some fresh perspective. Out of a month of soul-baring discussions, candid songwriting and recording grew The London Sessions, a 10-song collaborative album with UK-based producers and musicians like Naughty Boy, Emeli Sandé, Jimmy Napes and her new found friends Disclosure and Smith. Gearing up for the album's December release, we spoke with Blige about expanding her musical borders, her renewed love of dance music and the current state of R&B.
Was it difficult adjusting to recording solely in the UK with UK producers? Well, the only thing that was difficult was the time difference; I had jet lag every day. Everything else was a really easy, pleasant, fun, creative, positive experience. It wasn’t difficult at all because the artists and producers that I worked with, they know exactly what to do. They know their musical history, they obviously have a clue who Mary J. Blige is and know how to bring Mary J. Blige into this new thing that she’s doing without making it look like she’s reaching or going too far left. So it was amazing.
How open and raw did you have to be with creating this album? What was your mind set and emotional process behind it? Well, I mean I had to be Mary J. Blige. I’m honest with my song making and with my writing. Working with artists like Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé, they are kind of the same thing. They’re pretty honest with their lyrical content. It was really, really easy because it seemed to me that everyone that I worked with is really true to what they are doing musically. It was such a beautiful treat because I had no idea that so many of them were going to be so similar to me, you know.
In the trailer for the album, I saw that Rodney Jerkins was in London with you. How important was it to have him as apart of the process of this album? Did he help to ground the new sound in the tradition of the MJB sound? Yeah, he just helped to guide everyone, and make sure everyone was on the right track in understanding who Mary J. Blige is, just in case people didn’t know. These are new artists and new producers from a whole other country; they probably have my album but have never worked with me personally. Rodney has worked with me personally for years, from the Share My World album to my most recent album. He has been in my life as a producer for as long as I can remember. It was beautiful to have him steer it so it doesn’t look like, 'What is Mary doing?' you know. And thank God it wasn’t going down that path anyway. So he didn’t have that much to do, but it was a blessing to have him there.
GQ recently published an oral history on the origins of Bad Boy Records, to which you contributed. Is there anything about that era of music that you're nostalgic for? Anything that you miss musically about those early What’s The 411? days? The thing that I miss about it, that I believe we've captured on this album, is just the freedom to express myself anyway that I feel like. Even though we were on hip-hop tracks and working with samples, my voice was the thing that people paid attention to. Even though the beats were amazing, people paid attention to the vocals, and the lyrical content. Later on the music started crowding up everything. So the only thing I really think that I miss is the freedom to do me and not have the label say, ‘You have to do this, you have to be this person.' I’m not listening to [them] anyway, but all that chatter kind of clogs you up. But I didn’t have that on this album. I was free as a bird and just skated all over this one as the Mary J. Blige that I am today. And that’s the thing that I miss that we have right here on this album.
"[R&B's] not as bad as it used to be, because at one point I was really, really worried, you know. There’s hope for R&B now."
On all of your albums, you've always expressed very openly whatever you were going through—whether sorrow or happiness. Other than stretching your boundaries and stepping outside of your musical comfort zone, what was the emotional narrative that you wanted to convey on this your 13th album? The thing that’s really important about this album is that it's life. The emotional and the lyrical content are based on life, that’s the thing that ties everything together. Not just my life, not just your life, but just life, period. That’s the thing that I’m always trying to convey at the end of the day. The real honest way of expressing it is this: life is full of peaks and valleys, there’s up and downs, you might need therapy and what is therapy to you? That’s actually one of the songs, “Therapy.” It might not be sitting in front of a person telling them all your business, it might be just listening to music and having a good cry, or sitting with a friend and telling them what you feel. Then you have the song “Doubt,” which is something that so many people deal with. There’s this voice in their head telling them, ‘You won't do this, and you won't do that.’ But they beat the doubt by proving that they're stronger than what the doubt was saying. They can be successful, they can win, and they can be whatever they want to be. That’s two of the things that are really important to me that I wanted to get across to people on this album.
How do you feel about the state of R&B today? How can I say this…it's not as bad as it used to be, because at one point I was really, really worried, you know. There’s hope now for R&B. There are people that want to do it. You have people like Miguel, who I absolutely love, who to me gave R&B hope. You have Sam Smith, who is making all these amazing love songs, and you know for a while people weren’t doing that. Then you have Disclosure, who are bringing the club scene back to what it was when we were little kids; when we weren’t even clubbing and going out, we were just listening to the radio, and the club music was just great. You’ve got Drake who is one of the most amazing rappers in the world but he’s not just a rapper; this guy has melodies for days, he can sing, he can do whatever he wants. So I’m not worried about it. I’m not mad at the state of music right now.
When you speak about house and your music with Disclosure, what comes to mind for me is traditional soulful house and Jersey House, all songs that had really strong female vocalists. Is this similar to the type of music that you’re referencing when you collaborate with Disclosure? Yeah exactly, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know if you remember First Choice, and what is that song with Martha Wash, she was singing on all the songs?
You literally took that name out of my mouth, I was just about to mention Martha Wash. Yeah, she was a big voice on all the songs but they had a different girl in the video…“Everybody, Everybody.” Yeah that’s the one! That’s exactly the one. That was my song! That was the one I was dancing around to as a little kid. I couldn’t wait till it came on the radio. And then you have all the Philly club stuff. That was like First Choice and there were a couple of other people—that song “Follow Me, Follow Me” and “There But for the Grace of God, There Go I,” you remember that one? That’s what music is returning to right now and I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m happy that I’m the voice on these songs.
You're known for having amazing collaborations with rappers. Are there any rappers of today that you would like to collaborate with in the way that you did with Method Man for “You’re All I Need?” I still love Nas. I have so much respect for him, he’s still one of the greatest. Biggie if he was alive, I would definitely be doing something with him. You have Drake, who is amazing. I did something with him on my album Stronger With Each Tear, a song called “The One” that I did with him. So I already did Drake. I did Lil Wayne. I respect them all and if they needed me or I needed them I would hope I could do something with them.
As a veteran, what advice would you pass onto your younger London collaborators about life and the industry in general? I would say just stay as down to earth as you are. Don’t chase your last hit. Be yourself. Do not be swayed into doing what someone else is doing because it's working for them, do what works for you. Just don’t be afraid. If you’re great at what you do, and you know it, just live in that. Be good to people, be good to your fans and be true to yourself.
What is making Mary J. Blige happy right now? Well, first of all I’m excited about this project, The London Sessions, which is coming out soon. What makes me happy is that I know who I am and I know that my life is a gift and a blessing. That’s what makes me happy, having a life and having a career, and having people that love me, that’s what makes me happy.