The Business of Being Ms. Mary J. Blige
The boundary-smashing singer on training like an athlete and selecting the right collaborators—both creatively and strategically.
In the 26 years since the release of What’s the 411?, Mary J. Blige has managed to hold onto her unofficial title of Queen of R&B thanks to her impassioned vocals and personal lyrics. She’s famous for bringing determination and dignity to each project she takes on, which in recent years has grown to include acting, producing, and political activism. With 13 studio albums, nine Grammys, and two Academy Award nominations to her name (for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for Mudbound), Blige is an undeniable multi-hyphenate icon, and she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. But how’s she been able to pull all this off, and so consistently too? We sat down and asked her exactly that as part of our new video series Best Advice. Watch her episode below and check out our extended interview for a few tips from the Queen.
Spotify for Artists: You’ve been singing for decades. What’s some advice you can share with singers out there for how to take care of their instrument?
Mary J Blige: Well, when I was younger, I did a show called Out All Night, and Patty LaBelle was on it. I was super young and she gave me some remedies, you know. I think it was Remy Martin—some kind of brown alcohol with eucalyptus and honey and all this stuff, and I tried it and it worked.
So I guess [there are] different ways of taking care of your voice, you learn through trial and error. What I discovered now that really, really works is different licorices like Red Vines and Twizzlers and Gummi Bears—and just eucalyptus. And then people say, "You’re using a vocal coach, does that mean you can't sing?" No, that's how you take care of your voice. Because it's not to teach you how to sing, because you can sing, but it's to teach you to sing properly so you don't ruin your vocal cords—it's happened to me before. I ruined my vocal cords by not singing properly.
What do you mean by “not singing properly”?
Not singing properly means you're straining, you're not using the air in your lungs and you're not using your gut to get to certain things. Once you use your air in your lungs and... your stomach, then you can know how to use your head voice properly, you know how to use your chest voice properly, you know how to use it all and then it's protected. And warming up before shows [is important], and if you are on tour and you are a singer and you're singing every note for real, don't do three shows in a row.
It's like being an athlete, right?
Singing is definitely like being an athlete because your vocals, just like your body, you work it out every morning, you go to the gym. You have to work on your vocal muscles as well to keep them moving.
Did you have anybody that looked out for your business interests?
There were a few people, beautiful people that are still in my life that have brought me to some of the best lawyers. They helped me, wanted to help me, not just wanted to rob me and take advantage of my lack of knowledge. Good people are hard to find in this business. Family is great, and when you find a person that's not your blood and they will take care of you like they are, treasure them, take care of them. Don't let your success go to your head to the point that you're speaking to people like they're not people.
You’ve collaborated with every big name in the business. What’s the secret to choosing the right collaborators? How do you know who you’re going to click with?
The secret to choosing great collaborators is just knowing who are you a fan of. Who do you love? What music makes you run to the radio, turn it up real loud? Who are your favorite artists? That's the secret to a great collaborator. Then you know you can do something great with them because you love their music. Then you make the song with them and sit in the studio with them and find that they're incredible people. That's all the cherry on top of the cake.
What was it like to be part of erasing the boundaries between R&B and pop? Were you aware of you were doing it at the time?
I didn't know... I was changing the guard. I didn't know that I was creating—along with Puffy, [and] I don't think he knew—we didn't know that we had taken charge of another genre of music. We started a whole other genre of music. I was having so much fun with hip-hop and soul because it's what I loved, it was what I was. It's every bit of me, and it didn't feel like I was doing anything different. It just felt like I was living in what I loved. Now, it's like, wow, you really created a whole other genre of music that people are doing today. It feels really good; it's rewarding, it's a big deal.
You’ve also branched out into acting; as an artist, how do you know when it’s time to try something completely different, and where do you get the confidence to do that?
Well as an artist you know when it's time to branch out into a whole new area when you become, in the eyes of your fans, [Michael] Jordan. I can do this asleep. Mary J. Blige, the singer, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul—that's my game, I won. But when the opportunity presents itself to be an actress, and it's something that you've always wanted to do as well, there you go. [So] when the acting opportunity comes it's like a challenge. It's something else to learn and grow [with] and appreciate, and that's how you know when you're full at the top with something. It's time to move.
- Spotify for Artists