The nickname came more than 20 years ago, when Mary J. Blige was a young and unknown singer on the verge of changing the way America hears soul music. It came from record executive Andre Harrell, who discovered and mentored Blige at Uptown Records, and it was so fitting, so undeniable, that there was no way it wouldn't follow her name forever.
The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. That's Mary J. Blige.
Few pop artists in history have merited a title so regally apropos. There's the King, Elvis Presley. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Blige, who performs at Tampa's USF Sun Dome on Sunday, isn't always thought of in such pantheonic terms. But it's time we change that.
Crunch the numbers: More than 50 million albums sold. More than 30 Grammy nominations, including nine wins. Some 25 Top 10 hits of her own, and guest appearances on countless others. She's the defining voice of the past quarter-century of hip-hop and R&B, and one of pop music's greatest collaborators ever.
Yes, Blige has lived up to her pitch-perfect nickname. Yet at 44, she remains so musically adventurous, so eager to expand her royal reach, that it fails to tell her whole story.
"My core fans, I'm the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to them," Blige said by phone from Atlanta. "To me, I'm the queen of whatever I do."
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Born in the Bronx, raised in rural Georgia and later Yonkers, N.Y., Blige was not an immediate candidate for pop music monarchy; the demo that got her signed, a cover of Anita Baker's Caught Up in the Rapture, was recorded in a mall karaoke booth in White Plains, N.Y.
But it didn't take long for Harrell and producer Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs to see where she was headed. Her Puffy-produced 1992 debut What's the 411? made no attempt to morph Blige into the next Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston. She was sexy and vulnerable but did not yield an inch of her toughness; the singles Real Love and You Remind Me topped the R&B chart.
My Life, released in 1995, was as open and autobiographical as its title implies — Blige received songwriting credit on nearly every track — and helped set the stage for hip-hop and neo-soul artists like Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and the Roots.
Platinum records and accolades followed every year — Not Gon' Cry in 1996, Family Affair and No More Drama in 2001, Be Without You in 2005 — but those first two genre-defining albums remain hailed as classics of modern R&B.
"If you left it to the fans of those albums, I would never have to make another record again," she said. "They love those albums, those songs. Definitely timeless."
Often when she's writing new music, she'll go back and listen to What's the 411? or My Life, or songs written and recorded even earlier. Those were much darker days, clouded by drugs and drink and depression, all stemming from difficult, abusive relationships in her life and from her childhood.
"I go back and I listen to the music, and I go back and listen to lyrically what I was talking about, and I just look at how far I've come," she said. "I try to write songs from a place of triumph, and a place of trials, too, because I still have trials, and I have triumphs. But I definitely try to write from both perspectives, because the world is not just all triumph."
Her fall arena tour feels triumphant, with Blige roaring through a murderer's row of hits. She can't pick a favorite, "because they're all my favorite songs for the night. When you're in it, you've got to look at them all as your favorite song, or else you're going to be up there, like, What time is it? They all have to be your favorite song."
That goes for the new stuff as well as the old. Each time she enters the studio, she aspires to create songs that feel as timeless as What's the 411? or My Life. "I want it to be something that can stand the test of time, just like my other work."
Her 2014 album The London Sessions is steeped in the sensibilities of British pop and soul. Blige wanted to work with pop artists Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and the dance duo Disclosure in hopes of producing "something that I've never done before." Yet she strived to retain a sense of "warmth and nostalgia" that would carry fans of her early work across the pond and into the new millennium.
Her mission: "Keep it insistent, but keep it classic."
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Blige's work with Disclosure, including their 2014 single F for You, speaks to her seemingly effortless ability to sing however she wants, whenever she wants, with whomever she wants.
Pairing with Bono to remake U2's One? Instant classic. A bilingual spin on Bridge Over Troubled Water with classical tenor Andrea Bocelli at the 2010 Grammys? Standing ovation. Not one but two duets with Taylor Swift on her recent summer tour? Brought the house down.
Jay Z, Elton John, Will Smith, Patti LaBelle, Drake, Kid Rock, Mariah Carey, Kendrick Lamar — somehow, Blige knows intuitively how to mold her voice to fit her partner and the moment.
"I've always known how to do it, ever since I was 7," Blige said. "I could switch my voice to anything. I could go from Reunited by Peaches and Herb to Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. It was crazy." She laughs. "I was always really good at that."
What she can't do is explain why.
"You either have to have it or you don't," she said. "I'm not saying it's something that can't be taught, but I can't teach it. I don't know how to just be yourself, but be able to, I guess, transform into something else? I can't describe it. Because it's really about just being yourself."
With each of her collaborators, Blige can usually put a finger on what they're looking for before she even begins to sing.
"Whatever Bono was looking for with One, he looked for Mary J. Blige to sing it — the powerhouse singer," she said. "Whatever Method Man is looking for, he's looking for Mary J. Blige the hip-hop soul singer. Whatever Disclosure's looking for, they're looking for the Mary J. Blige that's exploring how to sing like Martha Wash — but she can't, because she's still Mary J. Blige."
That's what keeps her collaborators coming back.
"It's just the honesty and the vulnerability and the tone of the voice," she said. "They always want the tone, because with the tone comes whatever's in Mary. Whatever's in Mary at the moment, you're going to get it."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.