The reigning queen of R&B talks about the various inspirations behind ''Growing Pains''

By Simon Vozick-Levinson
December 14, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s been 10 full months, but Mary J. Blige can’t stop replaying last February in her mind. First, the 36-year-old singer swept up three Grammys for her 2005 album, The Breakthrough. Then, two weeks later, she kept the celebration going by swinging through some of L.A.’s most exclusive post-Oscar parties. Sitting today in a spacious New York City hotel suite, Blige breaks into a breathless roll call of the Hollywood royals she rubbed elbows with on Oscar night. ”I found myself hanging out with Oprah. It was like, ‘I cannot believe that she would want to hang out with me.’ For me, I’m always the underdog. It was mind-blowing. Nicole Kidman was like, ‘Hi, Mary J.!’ Wow. And then here comes Meryl Streep, and I’m like, ‘I love your work! I don’t know if you really know who I am.”’ Blige beams. ”She was like, ‘I know exactly who you are.”’

They’re far from the only ones who were taking new notice of Blige. True to its title, The Breakthrough marked the moment that this respected R&B belter became a bona fide mainstream icon — the kind of vocalist who could groove alongside Jay-Z on one track, then turn around and emote her heart out with the members of U2 on a remake of their modern-rock classic ”One.”

But the album’s success — it quickly went triple platinum — also created a tricky balancing act for Blige this spring, when she set out to record her follow-up, Growing Pains (out Dec. 18). She wanted to hold on to her newfound wider audience — the people she calls ”the Bono listeners” — but she also worried about straying too far from her urban roots. ”I’m not going to chase what [mainstream fans] like.” She leans forward and slips into the third person, as she often does when emphasizing a point. ”They like me. So I’m going to give them Mary. And that’s that.”

In practice, what she’s giving them with her eighth studio effort is somewhere in between — a little bit glossy pop, a little bit no-nonsense R&B. To get there, this long-term career artist reached out to a cast of mostly young collaborators with recent radio hits under their belts. Like Beyoncés ”Irreplaceable”? You’ll love the two lush tunes contributed by that smash’s songwriter, Ne-Yo, and producers Stargate. The ghost of Rihanna’s ”Umbrella” is similarly present in the four cuts from producer Christopher ”Tricky” Stewart and songwriter Terius ”The-Dream” Nash. (That team actually offered ”Umbrella” to Blige back in overscheduled February, before Rihanna’s label won it in a bidding war.) But don’t accuse Blige of trendhopping. ”Certain sounds on the radio, I’m like, ‘Nah. Not doing that.’ When you just blatantly jump on something, it doesn’t work for me. It might work for a Mariah. It might work for even a Beyoncé But Mary J. Blige is looked at as some sort of organic thing.”

Blige is most animated when discussing Pains‘ lyrics: ”It’s all about the empowering of women,” she says. ”I’m trying to make them comfortable and strong.” When it comes to the power of music to transform lives, Blige speaks from experience: She credits tunes like Soul II Soul’s 1989 ”Keep on Movin”’ and Sounds of Blackness’ 1991 ”Optimistic” with helping her survive a rough childhood and, later, prolonged battles with substance abuse — thankfully, far in her past.

Even as her music continues to evolve, Blige hasn’t forgotten her troubled history. It’s what makes her wince whenever she sees the media hounding artists like Amy Winehouse. ”They’re human beings, and they’re young, in a business that doesn’t give a hoot about you. It’s just sad. I hate to see any of these females go through it. I was young, and I did dumb stuff — I was doing worse than that.” Blige’s life still comes with its share of complications, but she’s staying positive: ”It takes so much to get to a certain point in your life. It was painful. But it was pain for a great cause. And that’s to make Mary J. Blige better.”

Mary’s Dream Team
If she could sign anyone to her label, Matriarch Records, she’d pick…

Ne-Yo ”The best love-story songwriter in this generation. And he’s smart. You don’t find that in the music business!”
Rihanna ”When you look at her, you can see her heart, her confidence, her grace — and her ability to sing and model.”
Keyshia Cole ”She has a story to tell [e.g., Cole’s drug-addicted mom giving her up for adoption]. The kids of her age group need her.”
Chris Brown ”He has this thing that New Edition had — this youthful kid on the block that can dance. And he’s a handsome little dude!”