NEW YORK (Billboard) - Mary J. Blige, anointed “the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” in 1992, is on a 15-year multiplatinum run as one of the most electric performers in the urban world, with a wide-ranging crossover base that straddles the R&B, hip-hop, pop and even adult contemporary markets.
Her last two studio albums, 2003’s “Love & Life” and 2005’s “The Breakthrough,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Even last year’s “Reflections — A Retrospective” opened in the top 10.
One-upping all that is the challenge Blige and Geffen Records face as her new album, “Growing Pains,” nears its December 18 release. The Bronx-born singer/songwriter’s ninth album is already stirring things up with the uptempo single “Just Fine.”
Blige said, “I started out with this concept of growing pains because that’s how I was feeling during the (2007) Grammys: ‘Am I good enough for this; do I really deserve all this in my life?’ But something in my head said, ‘Yes, you are. Now you’re forced to rapidly grow up in this area in order to achieve and get the things you want.”‘
Featuring collaborations with Ne-Yo (who wrote the track “Fade Away” from a poem by Blige), Timbaland and Akon, among others, “Growing Pains” finds Blige coming to terms with her success, particularly in the wake of the last album’s three Grammy Award wins.
Hers has been a hard-fought battle, through well-chronicled personal travails in romance and substance addictions.
“This is just the work to get to that part — where nothing bothers you and nothing is stressing you out,” said Blige, who also gets help from rapper Ludacris on “Grown Woman” and adopts her strident Brook-Lynn alter ego on the track “Nowhere Fast.” “That’s where I’m headed and that’s where I am, but there’s a whole other level of that that I have to get to. That might take a lifetime, but that’s where I’m headed.”
Collaborating with Tricky Stewart, the Dream and Jazze Pha on “Just Fine” helped set the tone.
“It wasn’t presented to me as a complete song initially,” Blige recalls. “They began to play this keyboard part and then the drums. Then they explained to me, ‘We know what you’re used to, but you’ll be a part of a whole other party if you go with this record that we’re about to make.’ I went back to my room and when I came back the next day, they had the whole song.
“When I heard the beat, I was like, ‘OK, this is hot. This is making my body move, and I’m having fun,”‘ she continued. “It sounded like something that needed to be more uplifting than, ‘Woe is me.’ (laughs) So I tried to make the song about how I appreciate the good days I do have and where I’m at right now, even though I still have challenges.”
Geffen general manager Jeff Harleston said that the label faces some unexpected obstacles in marketing the eagerly awaited release. Performances on TV are usually central to marketing strategies for Blige. But the Writers Guild of America strike has put most talk and variety shows in dry-dock, limiting those opportunities for her.
The label is exploring several other avenues. Radio remains a major component, with “Just Fine” already No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 after six weeks. The song’s video had the rare distinction of debuting simultaneously on BET, iTunes, MTV and VH1 October 25.
The Apple campaign, which features album track “Work That” in ads for iTunes and iPod, should drive sales from the get-go. By example, digital downloads of Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4,” which appeared in an early-fall iPod ad, soared from 6,800 to 128,000 in its first three weeks of exposure, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Blige will embark on a short promotional tour starting the second week of December, visiting Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and possibly San Francisco. She’ll visit radio stations and “try to have a special event,” such as an appearance or performance, “in each of the markets,” according to Harleston.
On top of all this, Blige is operating her own label, Matriarch Records. An album by R&B singer Dave Young — who co-wrote “No One Will Do,” “Baggage” and “MJB Da MVP” on “The Breakthrough” — is slated to be the imprint’s first release, though a date has not yet been set.
“He’s got a voice that’s been missing in R&B,” Blige said. “It’s incredibly soulful: He’s like our Donny (Hathaway) that we don’t have, our Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Tyrone Davis.”
More than anything, however, she’s eager to get her “Growing Pains” out to the public and continue what Blige said has been a career-long dialogue with her audience.
“My fans are like shrinks for me,” Blige said. “Any time a person listens to you, they’re helping you, and there’s 5 million people out there listening to me. I’m like, ‘Wow, thank y’all for listening.’
“So I help them and they help me, and we all help each other. I’m just happy they’re happy. All they want to know is that somebody out here understands their pain, their joy or whatever they’re dealing with, and I’m so glad they can do that with me.”