Singer Blige feels "Stronger" with each challenge

Fri Dec 4, 2009 7:02pm EST
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - On the chorus of her latest single, "I Am," Mary J. Blige sings in her riveting voice: "Ain't nobody gonna touch you better... more than I am." Since breaking through with her first R&B charting single and first No. 1 in 1992, "You Remind Me," few performers have touched fans' inner emotions quite like Blige.

Nearly 20 years later, that emotional connection shows no signs of fraying. The nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter -- who has earned such sobriquets as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and the Empress of Soul -- returns December 21 with her ninth studio album, "Stronger" (Matriach/Geffen/Interscope).

Produced and co-written by Stargate, "I Am" debuted at No. 46 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Not only was the bow the singer's best start since 2007, but it also marked her 17th top 50 debut as a lead artist -- the most by a female -- and her 59th appearance overall among women, second only to the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (99).

In addition to Stargate, Blige enlisted the production and songwriting talent of Ryan Leslie, Polow Da Don, the Runners, Ne-Yo, Akon, Bryan-Michael Cox, Rodney Jerkins, the Stereotypes, D'Mile and Geffen chairman Ron Fair. Guests on the set include Trey Songz, Drake (the previously released track "The One") and T.I. Appearing as a bonus song on the album is the title track, a previously issued single from the "More Than a Game" soundtrack.

On the heels of performing "I Am" at the November 22 American Music Awards, Blige is gearing up for a series of performances. Fans will be able to catch Blige on "The Jay Leno Show" (December 17), "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" (December 18), the "Christmas in Washington" special with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (December 20), "Today" (December 22) and "The View" (December 23). On the retail front, Blige taped an episode for Wal-Mart's Soundstage promotion.

Blige is also busy on the entrepreneurial front. Her Matriarch Records recently released the original motion picture soundtrack to the critically acclaimed film "Precious." In addition to co-writing a song specifically commissioned for the soundtrack with Raphael Saadiq, "I Can See in Color," Blige doubled as executive producer of the set, which features previously recorded tracks by Jean Carn, Queen Latifah and Labelle.

In the meantime, Blige and her manager and husband, Kendu Isaacs, are launching Matriarch Entertainment to develop TV and film projects. Blige's acting roles have included parts in "The Ghost Whisperer," "Entourage" and, most recently, Tyler Perry's "I Can Do Bad All by Myself."

Two Blige product lines are rolling out in the coming year: her Melodies line of sunglasses in association with Geffen/Interscope and the My Life fragrance through her partnership in the Brooklyn-based natural beauty products company Carol's Daughter. But beyond music and her roles as a businesswoman and actress/producer, it's Blige's work with FFAWN (the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now) and the recent opening of the first Mary J. Blige Center for Women in her hometown of Yonkers, N.Y., that really stokes her fiery passion.   Continued...