Following a bitter divorce, a career cul de sac and a botched Burger King ad, can a double nomination give the queen of hip-hop soul her mojo back?
In 1992, when Mary J Blige delivered her Puff Daddy-produced debut album What’s the 411?, she stood out a mile. Her contemporaries were the squeaky clean and elegantly attired Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who were not scowling and stomping about in Timberland boots, backward caps and baseball shirts. But Blige was. They always hit their notes. Blige didn’t.
From the moment she let loose on scorched songs such as Reminisce and You Remind Me, the then-teenager fascinated fans with an unrestrained, unpolished approach that tore through a chaotic childhood and troubled teenage years. She became the postergirl for real women looking for real love, both romantic and familial. On record she was rough, in interviews she was raw and people really loved it – and really loved her. Watching Blige perform the single No More Drama live was nothing short of revelatory. Doubled over, dropping to her knees, sweat flying from her face, each performance felt like an exorcism, which it was, of sorts. “It’s up to us to choose/ Whether we win or lose/ And I choose to wiiiiiiin,” she would cry, stomping around the stage. She has always fully inhabited every performance.
At the 2018 Oscars, Blige is nominated twice for Mudbound, as best supporting actress and for best original song; but hers is not a career of constants. Blige hasn’t had a hit single since 2011, when her largely forgotten collaboration with Drake, Mr Wrong, limped to No 87 in the Billboard Hot 100. An ad for Burger King’s “exciting” new chicken snack wraps in 2012 marked another low in the life and times of Mary J. Standing awkwardly atop a table in a grotty Burger King dressed in black pleather and wailing “fresh lettuce, crispy chicken/ Wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla” is not one of Blige’s best bits. Despite the ad going viral for all the wrong reasons, mostly thanks to its gross racial stereotypes, Burger King quickly pulled it, muttering that it had been leaked before completion. Blige herself was pretty livid. The snack-wrap disaster was a mighty misstep that the singer blames squarely on her former manager and husband, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs. It was one of several mismanaged events in the latter half of her career which also included a whopping tax bill that she is still paying off. Not only was Isaacs seemingly a rubbish accountant, but also an alleged cheat with a woman Blige was mentoring.
“It sucks that it’s so public, because you don’t want it to be public,” she told me in 2017. “But once you file for divorce, those courtrooms get it and then those stupid tabloids who have offices in those courtrooms get it and then it’s everywhere and your stomach is hurting and you gotta hear this shit every day.” She laughed the strangled laugh of someone who doesn’t find the thing one tiny bit funny.
It was during her divorce in 2016 that Blige found herself in Louisiana on the set of Netflix’s civil war movie Mudbound. There she began to shrug off her toxic marriage, subsequent breakup and a singing career that appeared to be in decline. She is magnetic as the matriarch Florence Jackson in the Mississippi-set first world war drama, directed by newcomer Dee Rees. Devoid of fake hair and false eyelashes, she is the captivating heart of Mudbound and the film’s anchor among a substantial cast including Carey Mulligan and Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks.
“That character was a place for me to just give everything that I was dealing with to,” Blige told the New York Times in January. “I was dealing with my own personal pain. I was really suffering. This was the place to just rest all this pain, and rest all of this confusion.”
Perhaps part of the magic lies in seeing a superstar so stripped back – it certainly worked for a frumpy Mariah Carey in Precious – and Blige’s presence, like Carey’s, carries real weight. It wasn’t only an unhappy marriage that she had to draw on for her intense performance. Raised in Yonkers, New York, in the 70s, Blige had endured a turbulent, violent childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father suffering from PTSD following service in the Vietnam war. While her single-parent mother went out to work, she was abused by someone entrusted to look after her. When, totally unprepared, Blige became hugely famous at 18, she quickly fell into drug and alcohol addiction and abusive relationships; one man held a gun to her head, another cheated on her habitually. When she met Isaacs in 2000 it seemed like she could put her past behind her. Her new-found happiness translated to her albums, which transformed from the wrought refrains of What’s the 411? to 2001’s upbeat No More Drama, featuring one of her biggest hits, the Dr Dre-produced Family Affair in which she made up the word “danceree”. Blige may once have been the troubled sister of hip-hop-soul; now she was the happily married stateswoman of R&B.
My life has been such an embarrassment in front of people. I’ve fallen down flat on my face, but it’s all about how you get up
Throughout her career, Blige has long been the torchbearer for the tortured, however happy – or unhappy – she has been. “My life has been such an embarrassment in front of people. I’ve fallen down flat on my face, but it’s all about how you get up,” she told me back in 2006. “The things that have happened to me hurt me so bad [but if] something’s really hurting me, then there’s some other girl out there that’s really feeling bad about it, too. So I begin to talk about it and normally it ends up really helping somebody.” Her alacrity to put it all out there can’t have hurt her approach to acting. She undoubtedly poured a lot of her IRL pain into Mudbound, but she portrays Florence with nuance and composure; she favours hubris over histrionics, flecking her performance with measure and grace. In the face of violent racism, abject poverty and, ultimately, a terribly unjust murder, Blige is unflinching, staunchly rising to whatever horror she must next face.
Blige’s Oscar nominations mark yet another phase in her unpredictable career, but whether she wins on the night hardly matters. Her nominations, as a black woman – a singer, no less – gracing an overwhelmingly white nominee list, speak loudly enough. With her rewards come redemption, and if music cannot always deliver her the release she requires, perhaps she can find it on the set of a movie, as she has with Mudbound. Here, she can inhabit someone else’s unhappiness for a short time – and maybe that’s enough.
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