HERE’S HOW YOU begin a story about royalty: Mary J. Blige, 42, is nestled on a banquette at the corner table at Sant Ambroeus, an old-money Italian spot with attractive waiters and really thick white tablecloths on New York’s Upper East Side. We’ll tell you what she’s wearing (1) and, of course, what she orders (2). We’ll leave out the part about how late she is (3), but we’ll describe her serendipitous encounter with another (sort of) famous person dining just one table over (4). How the other woman sashays over, how they embrace like old friends. That’s all true, of course, but when you’re talking about Blige, these typical trappings of celebrity don’t tell the real story.
“Turn that thing off for a second,” she says, gesturing at the tape recorder sitting next to her fork. “Let me do my human thing.” Her human thing means chitchatting with the owner, who greets her warmly, like a regular as opposed to an R&B superstar. Talking to the media, on the other hand, is work. Spend two hours dining with her, though, and you realize that, as her 20-year oeuvre can attest, honesty isn’t something she turns off when the tape recorder is on.
And here, after half a lifetime of hard lessons, 10 studio albums and a break into acting—she brings to life Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz in the forthcoming Lifetime movie Betty & Coretta—Blige is taking stock of things: from her at-times funny fashion choices and how she feels in sweats to who she thinks is killing it on the radio to what she’s working on now, inside and out.
The tape was running, but MJB was, as ever, MJB.
VIBE: It’s VIBE’s 20th anniversary, and this is the style issue. Not surprisingly, you’re the icon we’ve chosen to celebrate.
MARY J. BLIGE: My style? What do you say about that?!
Well, you’ve always been very vulnerable and honest in your music, but for a long time, your look was still so tough. Your style is softer now.
I’ve evolved. I’m a woman now, and I’ve softened. I’ve been a tomboy my whole life. But then you get older, you get married, you soften up. You still have that other exterior if needed [laughs].
You’ve often sort of set the tone. When you first came out, in 1992, female musicians were all doing one thing (5). And then there you were, with a whole different sound.
Right. I would agree with that. When you tell your truth, you are coming from a real place, so you are automatically a leader.
Have there been moments when you’ve been off course?
Yes, of course. There’s always moments like that. If you’re not confident in yourself, you’re going to waver. I’ve wavered, and I’ve lost.
 Gold hoops, a cream cashmere turtleneck, tan leather leggings, and sky-high, knee-high boots with leopard print pony hair details on the shoe.
 “The best thing on the menu,” which is a crab salad. With a coke.
 There was traffic and her people called. Twice. So, actually, we will leave this out. Everyone gets stuck in traffic.
 It was, if you can believe it, Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X’s, whose wife Blige has just played in a movie.
 This was around the time when Mariah Carey was wailing up and down the scales on Emotions and Whitney Houston was singing at the Super Bowl and filming The Bodyguard. Blige, meanwhile, was borrowing outfits from the boys and introducing us to a weird blend of hip-hop and R&B that no one had quite heard before.
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When have you wavered?
It’s in the history books. It’s there (6). When you’ve had a high point of success and moments in your life, you find yourself chasing the things that made you successful. If you don’t have the patience with yourself to do right by you, you lose. That’s a constant battle.
The same can be said about one’s image. Let’s talk about some of your album cover looks through the ages, to see your own evolution.
What’s the 411? Go.
Fresh off the block.
What’s the 411? Remix. Because that one was even crazier.
Wow, wow, wow. Hip-hop. That was hip-hop.
Share My World.
Trying to figure it out. Where am I going with this new journey?
Growing up and maturing as an artist.
No More Drama.
There were two album covers. The first one was pure confusion. The second one? Nailed it.
The second one was fierce.
The second one was, “Hold on, let me fix that first one” [laughs].
I’d arrived. Regal.
Stronger With Each Tear.
I don’t know what was going on there.
Why? It reminds me of record sleeves from the 1920s or 1930s.
Okay, that’s future of me. And also, Lena Horne.
My Life II...
It’s the first one that shows your whole body. Those curves!
I have never done a cover like that before. That was the first time. I don’t like to show my whole body like that.
I don’t know. I don’t think people care.
I can assure you that’s crazy talk.
Ha! I don’t know. That was revealing for me.
When do you feel most beautiful?
When I’m made up and dressed up and my heart is in the right place… [When] I feel happy. I’m not going to lie and say I feel beautiful when I have on a hair scarf and I’m running to the gym. I feel confident, but beautiful? No.
When does your husband think you look the most beautiful?
When I’m running to the gym [laughs].
I believe it. We saw you in sweats in the “Be Without You” video.
Ha! Less is more, I guess. He always tells me, “You don’t need all that stuff.”
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 Any guesses? Love & Life, maybe? That Method Man single?
How would your husband describe you?
I think he’d say I’m a sweet person. Of course he’d also say I’m crazy because he lives with me so he sees my highs and lows!
Let’s talk about current R&B. How do you feel when you turn on the radio?
Maybe in 2012, in the middle, I was like, “What is going on? What is this?” Things got worse before they got better. I think things are going in the right direction. I am so proud of what Rihanna is doing.
Yes. She is speaking to her generation, and she’s living her life in front of them. I don’t even think she’s purposely doing it (7). She’s such a beautiful girl, and I don’t think she knows she’s that beautiful (8). She’s just living her life, and leading her generation, and she has great, great songs. Her career is amazing; and her team, obviously, is amazing.
People give her a hard time because of the whole Chris—
They give her a hard time because she’s living her life. As long as she’s having fun and isn’t three minutes away from wanting to shoot herself, good! I want her to be happy. That’s impressive to me. And I love her songs. Adele also gives me hope. God bless Amy Winehouse. She was just the perfect thing.
What about male artists?
Drake is amazing. He is an amazing writer: great songs, great melodies. And Kendrick Lamar has a classic album right now. Classic. It’s like The Chronic. I’m not saying it is The Chronic. But you know how that album felt like a movie, with a beginning, middle and an end? His album has that same thing. I also love Bruno Mars. They need to take him seriously. He. Is. A. Problem. And Miguel is amazing. His voice; his writing. All of his songs are beautiful. He is pure inspiration.
So where is your head at these days? The last album, the last two, were your “Mary’s Happy Now” moment. What about now?
I’m all about making the right kind of music for where I’m at in my life right now, and where I’m going. I’m wrapping my mind around it, and thinking about what people need from me right now.
What do you think people need?
You can’t get around pain and opposition, but you can try to be joyful in the trial, and thank yourself for the trial, and thank God for the strength to get through it. Because you could be dead, or sick.
You’re talking about inner happiness, yeah. What gave you this perspective?
Trial? Error? I’m not all the way there yet, but the fact that we can talk about it says I’m getting there. You can’t walk around hurting other people.
You tweeted something the other day about how much energy it takes to hate on another person.
Get a life! People take so much time and energy hurting other people. Social media is full of hate mail. And you’re like, “Wow, this is how you spend your day?” No wonder the world is messed up. The only difference between you and that other person is their perspective on life. If you say you don’t have anything, you won’t have anything. The tongue is a serious weapon. You can use if for good. You can use it for bad.
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 Obvious point: She could be describing herself.
So what do you want right now?
Love, health, unity in my family and my friendships, success, a long life. I want everyone to be happy and to have what they need. Things I don’t want, I don’t deal with. I’m around female celebrities all the time and I can’t and won’t compare myself to them because that’s a terrible feeling.
Awful, yes. You said recently that trying new things is uncomfortable. Did you mean acting?
Yes. It’s very uncomfortable to become someone else and not be self-conscious about it. But then you see it when you’re all over and you think, “Oh my God! I did good!” (9)
Is that how you felt when you watched the Lifetime piece?
Yes! I’m growing! There’s so much I have to learn, still, but man. I saw myself grow.
Has anyone ever approached you about doing a biopic of your life?
All the time. But it’s not that time yet.
You seem to have come such a long way in this lifetime. What’s your secret? Have you been to regular therapy?
No, but I know for a fact there is a God.
You’re a born again Christian.
Yes. I went to church as a kid, but that’s not the same thing. Now it’s about me learning how to walk in love. I had to forgive everyone, and take responsibility. I can’t blame anyone anymore for what happened to me when I was younger. I’m an adult. That’s the therapy.
Right. But events in the present can trigger emotions from the past.
Yes. Something can happen today and it sends me right back. It triggers the voices. David Geffen said in a documentary [PBS’ Inventing David Geffen] that he asked his therapist, “How do I get rid of the negative voices in my head?” The therapist said, “The voices aren’t going to go away. You have to stop listening to them.” You have to stop listening to them.
My inner child is having fun now. She feels pretty. She’s feeling things she never had a chance to feel before. And now that I can let her out, she’s smiling, she’s laughing… She’s getting massages [laughs].
What were you like when you actually were a kid?
I used to wake up singing. I was always singing commercials. There was a PSA for The Children’s Aid Society, and I used to wake up singing it. (10) Every morning. By the time I was 16, all that was zapped out of me. The things that happened to me made me hard and quiet. I didn’t want to attract any attention to myself. You had to have your guard up. I wasn’t happy.
But you dreamt of being a singer.
I did. I had dreams. I saw lights, I heard people yelling.
Do you think that was a sign?
I know it was.
What do you dream about now?
Nothing much. Life is what I make it. Everything is right here.
 She threw her face into her palms when she said this, smiling broadly.
 She started singing it at the table then stopped herself. Google it. It’s worth it.