Before Mary Jane Blige, there was new jack swing, shoulder pads, and Whitney singing over those diet-Madonna beats. After her, there was "hiphop soul," the makings of most African-American pop as we know it today. Blige is the Queen. Bow down.
What is it about her, though? What exactly is the 411 on her out-the-box popularity and remarkable staying power? (Consider this: She's been going platinum since Keith Murray mattered.) What is it that has made her the alpha female of R&B, stiletto-strutting high above the faceless, nameless legions of R&B chicks she's outlasted as they flitted through Vibe and right out the back?
Surely it's that voice: smoky, its gutbucket- kicking power light on look-what-I-can-do histrionics, with that sexy ghetto touch of Black & Mild–induced scratchiness. Those concrete project roots are part of it, too, her quintessential been-through-it, round-the-way everywoman swagger that millions of fans have immediately recognized, related to, or emulated. Fans trust Blige because of her trademark emotional honesty; whether singing an original or a cover (like her definitive take on Rose Royce's "I'm Going Down"), Blige imbues songs with a pain all too palpable, culled from a lifetime of hurt and bad choices that were all too public—a serious gin and hard-drug habit, an infamously abusive relationship with Jodeci's K-Ci Hailey—and that fame and money did little to salve.
Blige concerts feel like some cathartic group help session where women find mutual healing in hearing her scream down her demons; I saw a legion of ecstatic ladies (including my girlfriend, the real reason I know anything about Blige) jump to their feet at her concert, talk to the singer like she was talking to them, and sway like sunflowers, arms to the stars. Her live set, captured so well on The Tour (which no less a critic than Robert Christgau, a fan from the sound of it, recommends as an ideal Blige primer), is immediate, forthright, believer-making. She coheadlined a tour with Jay-Z, the biggest rapper of the time, at the height of his power—and blew the God MC clean off the stage.
Blige hasn't typically harped on her superiority, because she hasn't had to—but lately she's been indulging in some well-deserved victory laps. "I ain't saying I'm the best," she sings on "The One," "but I'm the best." New track "The Queen," a snippet of which is currently floating around YouTube, is supposedly a shot at rising off-the-block wailer Keyshia Cole, whom many are hailing as the next Blige; it's a testament to Blige that it took 20 years for someone to warrant such a comparison. But Cole's shitty behavior and performance at last year's Bumbershoot underline another reason Blige has stayed on top—a wealth of class. Even when fresh-faced and girlish in combat boots and baseball jerseys, homegirl has always carried herself like a real woman, and nothing to play with.
Even still, and despite titling an album No More Drama, she can't ever entirely escape her scrapes. There was that odd allegation in the Albany Times Union this year that named Blige, alongside 50 Cent and Timbaland, as having allegedly purchased steroids from a shady Florida doctor (supposedly for its antiaging effects). There was the alleged jab she delivered to husband Kendu Isaacs's face at the Stronger with Each Tear CD-release event in New York in December. Or the puzzling claims she made in July that she would be joining the Howard University class of 2014—claims that a Howard rep soon after revealed to be premature.
Her Highness, as far from perfect as ever, can for now cover up those lingering odors with her new fragrance, My Life, which recently broke Home Shopping Network records, selling 60,000-plus units during six hours of airtime. She can accept awards and accolades for her philanthropic efforts like the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, which she founded with music exec Steve Stoute. Better yet, she can continue to refine the satisfying second phase of her recording career (exemplified by her last three albums), in which she draws as much inspiration from, and gives as much weight to, the happiness and growth she's found in her life. "I'm so glad to be here," she sings in "MJB Da MVP," "and my music's still sincere. Let's get back to the story, all of this pain and glory."