Look Back At Anger

 

The anger management and showbiz etiquette classes seem to be working. An aide asks Mary J Blige to change hotel rooms for the interview, another asks her to change clothes for the photos. No crockery flies. No one dies. Blige acquiesces with a shrug.

Before her ascension with 1991's What's the 411, R&B was still a world of fluttering divas in evening wear. Blige presented new iconography: a hard-headed hip-hop girl who exulted in the tough, working-class culture she grew up with. Despite worldwide appetite for this brash ghetto style, the reality for Blige has been traumatic. Several times it has threatened to derail her career - hence the temper control and etiquette tutor (who has now been sacked).

Her antagonism and surliness are easily traceable to insecurity and low self-esteem. She was brought up by her teenage single mother, Cora, dropped out of school at 15 and seemed set for a life of drug and alcohol problems (both admitted) with occasional hairdressing and babysitting thrown in.

She recorded Anita Baker's Caught Up In The Rapture in a mall for fun and the tape reached Sean "Puffy" Combs. Combs was then the 21-year-old head of A&R at the booming and innovative Uptown records, helping shape new street-edged R&B. He and boss Andre Harrell travelled to Blige's flat, auditioned her and signed her.

Even with success Blige seemed to bear the imprint of the depressive. She walked out of interviews or didn't turn up. She walked off stage on her first British dates and suffered a savage backlash. By the time My Life arrived, Blige says she was suicidal. She split from the ambitious Combs and was on the point of bankruptcy.

Most harrowing of all was her love affair with K-ci Hailey, singer with the now defunct soul group Jodeci. From the outside the pair were the dream couple of the new 90s street soul. But Blige was suffering from what she describes as physical and mental abuse.

The mental abuse was made public in 1990. Interviewed on The Word, Blige confirmed the two were engaged to be married. The show then cut to Hailey who denied that the pair were even going out. When I interviewed Uptown boss Andre Harrell in 1994 he confirmed their wedding would take place that summer. When I met Hailey later that year, he said talking about relationships - let alone weddings - would upset his female fans. The relationship ended several years ago.

Today, sitting in a highrise Manhattan hotel suite crammed with lunch, laptops, entourage and family, Blige still bristles with her usual distrust of strangers and media fuss, but she appears the most balanced and business-like I've seen her; happier and stronger.

The new album, Mary, contains some inspiring upbeat love grooves. Nevertheless it's her rasping bluesy voice on the pleading heartbreak of Don't Waste Your Time (a duet with Aretha Franklin), the Elton John-assisted Deep Inside, and the chilling Your Child which really stop you in your tracks. The nightmare she refers to may be long over, but her new music suggests that the catharsis is ongoing.

K-ci Hailey and his group Jodeci were another spectacular 1990s success. The group had driven from a small town in Virginia to Uptown records, sung for Andre Harrell in reception and been signed. In a drastic image change they too came to symbolise the swaggering urban cool that Blige represented.

Blige and Hailey could have enjoyed the rush of young fame together, but they didn't. In a spooky echo of the Ike and Tina Turner story, Blige blames K-ci Hailey for continued abuse resulting from his fear of her success. Since their split, a time during which she says she feared for her life, Blige has got her act back together.

"He had to be out," she says. "That was something that was holding me back. He didn't want me to have nothing. He didn't want me to sing when I was already a singer. He held me back from shows when I had to get on planes. When I say mental and physical abuse, everyone knows it was him. He'd use Jodeci interviews to say horrible things about me."

The most extraordinary thing about these revelations is K-ci Hailey's appearance on her new album. The Not Looking duet is, all the more amazingly, about a woman rejecting the advances of a cocky, gangster-type suitor and demanding a more mature and sensible partner. "I did the record with him but we weren't in the same studio," she explains. "I was in New York and he was in LA and we didn't see each other. My managers thought it was a good business move. I was totally against it. But then I tried Joe (another R&B star) on the song, I tried Eric from Blackstreet on the song; no one could pull it off. Then I spoke to K-ci and said `Would you do the song?' and he said `Yeah, no problem'. It was just business."

Blige tells Hailey on the song "I'm not lookin' for no arrogant egotistical playa shit!" He wails that his love is real and apologises for past behaviour. The song ends with Blige's sarcastic rejoinder: "I know you're sorry".

But Blige has found new friends and musical collaborators through the experience. Lauryn Hill stepped in to lend support and wrote two songs on the album including the new single All That I Can Say. Hill also drew on the pain of bad love for much of last year's Grammy-winning album. Her duet with Blige, I Used to Love Him, takes on new poignancy in the light of these revelations.

Blige now shares her four-bedroom house in New Jersey with sister La Tonya and the latter's husband and children. The surrogate family has given her support, and there's a real feeling of breezy carefree love on I'm In Love and All That I Can Say.

"I'm In Love is about being in love with life. When you feel hope, you feel free and you start loving life. You start feeling that something good is coming - some man maybe. And I say that 'cos I can't help it. I'm into men!

"Maybe God is shaping him and moulding him right now or maybe he's right in my face every day and I haven't noticed yet. I've got to get used to not having someone around now but it's hard. It's hard in the middle of the night or maybe on the road in Europe. I get depressed. But I'd rather be alone than hold on to something which is artificial."

More recently Blige has entered pop territory uncharted by a credible street artist. Elton John is a friend and plays the Benny and The Jets piano riff borrowed for Deep Inside. She met George Michael the day before his solo performance in a Beverly Hills toilet and ended up recording As, the number one duet, with him.

"We like Sir Elton because he was real from the beginning. I met him at Madison Square Garden and we had something in common because there is a certain person from the fashion industry, a stupid model, that we don't like. Elton said: `I like you because you don't like her either!' And I was like, `Someone's with me on this!'

"The next day it said on the news he dedicated Benny and The Jets to me. I couldn't believe it. We called and asked him to play on the album. He came to the studio with a Versace bag and all the perfume out of the store. He made me feel real good. He was love. Sir Elton is real!

"I met George in LA with Babyface. I've always been a fan; he's always been in our lives. I grew up watching Wham! and George Michael on MTV. And when he met me, he was, like, `I love you! You're the greatest!' Just to be recognised by him was amazing. So the next day, when the scandal blew up, I was like, `Oh shit!' But that never stopped me from loving him. But God tests you in so many ways as to what you're supposed to do and I knew I was supposed to love that man no matter what."

With that, she's off to rehearse a show with Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden. Four days later she calls me, anxious to edit the more heinous accusations against her former lover. "That's the past," she says. "I don't want it hanging round my neck forever. I forgive and move on."