The narrative surrounding Mary J. Blige’s formidable career as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul has, from the beginning, been one of overcoming adversity.
Blige’s game-changing debut, What’s the 411?, was recorded amid an abusive relationship with K-Ci Hailey of K-Ci and JoJo, and her struggles with depression and alcohol and drug abuse. Her catalogue, a powerful one that changed the course of both R&B and hip-hop, is entirely candid about these struggles, and in interviews, eventually, she was never shy about speaking on it; the straightforwardness and honesty with which she described her pain and struggles were, too, groundbreaking in the category of women documenting their truths through music and literature, something she should get more credit for. She has also, always, kept herself true, and on par with everyone else; in 2005, she told VIBE’s Ayana Bird, “I don’t let myself absorb [being called a legend] because I want no man idolizing me. Icon? No, I’m you. I’m working on things that you’re working on.”
The “overcoming” aspect seemed to come first with 2001’s No More Drama and especially with 2005’s The Breakthrough, an album in which Blige seemed more at peace with her life and past than ever, a sort of reckoning through song; this also coincided with her 2003 marriage to her manager, Kendu Isaacs, a time in which she seemed happier than she’d ever been. For longtime Blige fans, it was heartening, a chance to see her shine, having been struggling to climb up from the dark side of the moon for so long. We were rooting for her.
All of this frames Blige’s current press tour for her forthcoming album, Strength of a Woman, an aphoristic title that we believe because lord knows she’s earned it. Blige filed for divorce from Isaacs in 2016, and it was clear she would be forthcoming, or at least seem to be, in her music; her just released single “Love Yourself,” with Kanye West, details plainly the growth she’s been through, and the truths she’s learned, in a life that both mirrors the kinds of problems regular women go through, and valorizes and preserves them through art in a way that means more than she’ll perhaps ever comprehend in the totality of its scope. “I know myself to much to ever fold, dark clouds are moving past you,” she sings. “Whoa, you gotta love yourself, if you really wanna be with someone else/You gotta feed yourself before you feed somebody else.” It’s the kind of advice that makes it into movie scripts and in therapy sessions, but the weight that Blige brings to it—the knowledge that she knows it firsthand, and is singing it to us so gravely—gives it all the more meaning.
On Thursday, Blige appeared on The Angie Martinez Show, and was accordingly candid about her divorce, explaining that she uses her music “for [her] own therapy.” It is also disarming, even for those of us who’ve followed her whole career; it’s so rare these days to get what appears to be the full and straightforward truth about an artist/celebrity, or even just a sliver of it. And yet her confessional nature never seems to be self-serving, as it can nowadays when celebrities (and even writers) personalize their stories. She’s doing this because it’s what she’s always done.
With Martinez, Blige spoke in-depth about the demise of her marriage—she very heavily implies that Isaacs cheated in this interview, and is even more clear about it elsewhere—which was made that much more complicated by the fact that he was also her longtime manager. (In October, TMZ reported that Isaacs was asking Blige for $129,319 per month in spousal support. Blige fired him as her manager shortly after she filed for divorce.) “Unfortunately, he was my everything, and you can’t make a person your everything,” Blige told Martinez. “Because you’re giving them too much power—you’re giving them God’s power. I gave him way too much, but I gave him that so he could feel comfortable in the company of my peers. So he’s not just ‘Mary J. Blige’s husband’… when I love you, I love you, and give way too much. But I won’t do that again… He fucked it up for everybody.” She and Martinez laughed.
Blige also talked about the way relationships can end up subsuming individual identities. “[Marriage is] not for everybody. You lose yourself in it, you don’t even realize how much you lost yourself. You lose your identity, you start living to please this man and wanna be everything he wants you to be,” she said. “I was always desperate to be loved by a man that I felt like, oh wow, this is him. My desperation got me tricked.”
This interview is also remarkable because she’s with Angie Martinez, a legend of intimate interviewing and also Blige’s friend—it’s two women getting extremely real about the inner workings of—let’s call it patriarchy for expediency’s sake. But Blige was equally frank on Friday morning with The Breakfast Club, even after Charlamagne contextualized her new album title—Strength of a Woman—with the Women’s March and “women just being at the forefront of this resistance of this Administration.” (I do appreciate the gesture!)
“I’ve had to survive so many things, and here I am surviving something else,” she responded. “And of course, to all the women out there. The strength of a woman is remarkable. I don’t think a man could ever carry a baby for nine months, or go through the menstrual cramps that we suffer!”
With The Breakfast Club, too, Blige describes the lack of parity in her marriage, and how Isaacs treated her towards the end in a way that sounds extremely disrespectful at best. “Nothing I ever did was good enough and I was never smart enough… nothing could satisfy him,” she explained. Angela Yee asked if she thought his actions were part of his insecurity about her being in the spotlight, but Blige reiterated her thought that she simply allowed him too much. “I gave him too much power. I gave him everything. I said here, take it all. Manage me, love me, protect me, do it all. And he didn’t handle it right, he still wasn’t secure. But it was never enough, so what can you do?”
Later in the interview, though, Blige shows that even with her history, she’s still learning and building up her long-fought-for resilience. “This is probably one of the best things that’s happened to me in a long time, this divorce, because it’s really showing me how much love I didn’t have for myself. And how much I need to love myself—really love myself—pamper myself, take care of myself, all the things that I was neglected, do for myself. And handle my business. Take care of Mary J. Blige. I’m my manager; even though I have partners, I am really in this thing now.” As ever, we’re rooting for, and we believe in, Mary J. Blige.
Strength of a Woman is out April 28 on Capitol.