When Mary J. Blige turned 50 last year, the best birthday present she received didn’t come from a friend or a colleague or a member of her family.
“Man, the best present was the one I got me,” the R&B star says with a laugh, recalling a lavish trip to Turks and Caicos that she documented with a series of striking swimsuit photos that quickly went viral online. “I remember I was just playing music all day long — ‘Alright’ by Kendrick [Lamar] — and me and my girlfriends were bouncing and dancing and having a good time.
“But really I was just happy that I made it to 50. I cried happy tears.”
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A course of self care after an extended rough patch — that’s the story of Blige’s poignant new album, “Good Morning Gorgeous,” her first since the finalization of her lengthy and painful divorce from record producer Kendu Isaacs, to whom she was married for a decade and a half.
In 2005, Blige — dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul in the early ’90s thanks to her tender yet street-smart work with Sean “Puffy” Combs — scored a No. 1 radio smash and three Grammy Awards with “Be Without You,” which celebrates the flowering of a romance. By 2017, the singer was on the stage at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammys party, telling the crowd of music-biz insiders that she was “going through some horrible stuff right now.”
On “Good Morning Gorgeous” — due Friday, two days before she’s set to play the Super Bowl halftime show alongside Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Lamar — Blige takes stock of the damage, then seeks to move past it in songs that set her gloriously rough-cut singing against lushly detailed R&B arrangements.
“My intention was to build myself up out of this very dark, negative place,” she says over Zoom during a break from Super Bowl rehearsals. “Strengthen myself. Say these affirmations to myself to get to a place where I believed something good and beautiful was in me.
“It was a process of healing — of trying to get free from something.”
Yet as much as Blige is looking inward in her new music, the key to her appeal has always been her ability to let listeners in.
“Mary doesn’t have followers or fans — she has believers,” says Kevin Liles, the longtime hip-hop executive who signed Blige to his label 300 Entertainment to release “Good Morning Gorgeous.” Liles and the singer have known each other for decades; he helped organize her classic mid-’90s duet with Method Man, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By.” In his view, “You don’t just listen to Mary. She’s an experience. You better sit down, get that tissue box, have a drink, whatever you need, ’cause it’s gonna bring up some s— of your own.”
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The emotional realism in Blige’s music marked her as a pioneer when she emerged with unflinching hip-hop-soul records like “Real Love” and the title track from 1994’s acclaimed “My Life” album, which flipped a sample from Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” into a mournful account of hard times. Blige was singing about her life the way rappers were rapping about theirs; the music had an edge that distinguished it from the polished, aspirational love songs of the ’80s. It also made her seem relatable even as the hits piled up.
“Especially in the African American community, I was just Mary,” she says. “I was their homegirl, their friend, their sister in their head.”
Today, examining the drama in one’s life — using it as the raw material for art — is a natural approach for younger R&B acts like Jazmine Sullivan and Summer Walker, whose producer London on da Track helmed a song on “Good Morning Gorgeous.” Other collaborators on the album include H.E.R., who plays guitar on the title track; Usher, who duets with Blige in the throbbing “Need Love”; and Anderson .Paak, who co-wrote several cuts and co-produced “Love Without the Heartbreak,” in which Blige performs a kind of edit on a broken relationship.
“I would start at the part where we made love,” she sings, “I would take out the part when you gave up.”
In an email, Paak said that Blige had pushed him to “make something with urgency” but noted that their time in the studio wasn’t all business: “Mary’s a great DJ. Some days we just partied to her playlist and drank wine.” (Like a true friend, he specified that they’d enjoyed Sun Goddess, a line of Italian wines Blige introduced in 2020.)
Blige is proud of having laid the groundwork for the generation after hers. “It’s a blessing that I’ve been a blessing to people like that,” she says. But she’s quick to point out that, for her, pulling from real trauma — she’s spoken in the past about experiencing abuse — was less an artistic choice than a matter of instinct.
“There was no other way to do it than to just be honest,” she says. “And I had to do it in order to breathe, to live another day. It was to save my life.”
After Blige’s Dr. Dre-produced “Family Affair” topped the Hot 100 in 2001, the singer says some in the record industry attempted to steer her away from her signature style toward something slicker.
“As a Black woman in the music business, they were always trying to force you to do what pop culture was doing,” she says. “That was mainly white America, although they call it ‘mainstream.’ They wanted me to do things that I knew wasn’t gonna work for me. I’d try it, and every time I tried, I failed.”
Asked which records she’s referring to, Blige says, “I don’t really want to say. I don’t want to do that. But it was a couple of songs that came out that were like, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have done that.’”
Has anyone put that kind of pressure on her lately? “Oh, this was a long time ago,” she replies. “That’s not gonna happen ever again.”
Something else Blige doesn’t want to get into specifics on: what exactly Sunday’s halftime performance will look like. She does allow that it was Dre and Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine (whom she calls “one of my really close friends”) who asked her to be a part of the show and that her role is “much bigger” than the one she played in the 2001 Super Bowl halftime, which also featured Aerosmith, ’N Sync, Britney Spears and Nelly.
“I remember … being there,” she recounts of that Frankenstein-like spectacle. “I think Steven Tyler and I sang a little something?”
Blige calls Dre and Snoop “family forever” and says Dre’s 1992 “The Chronic” — a landmark of Southern California culture that came out just as a rivalry between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop was taking shape — resonated with her, even as a proud New Yorker.
Looking beyond the Super Bowl, Blige — who lives these days in New Jersey — says she “definitely” has plans to do another movie after her Oscar-nominated turn in 2017’s “Mudbound” and her portrayal of Dinah Washington in last year’s Aretha Franklin biopic, “Respect.” She also has a handful of festival dates scheduled next month.
And what are her thoughts on dating now that she’s officially single? “I mean, I’m not out here trying to make something happen,” she says, laughing. “Just working and enjoying where I am right now. Not trying to force anything or force anybody in my life. I don’t know when the time’s ever gonna come again to be tied down.
“I don’t need to pick anything else. Last thing I picked was a disaster.”
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