No Booze, No Drugs, No Drama
But Blige, 32, lived up to Combs's hype, and then some. Eleven years, eight albums and two Grammys after her groundbreaking 1992 debut, What's the 411?, millions of fans know exactly who the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is. "Her work has paid off. She's seen as one of the best vocalists in the world," says Combs, who reunited with Blige to produce her new CD, Love & Life. The disc, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in September, has gotten everyone from Oprah to the NFL (she performed on the season kickoff) buzzing about Blige. "She's the heir to Aretha," says Sting, who asked Blige to sing the duet "Whenever I Say Your Name" on his latest album, Sacred Love. "I had to bring myself up to her level of emotion."
These days the biggest emotion Blige is feeling is joy. After years of struggling with drugs, alcohol and abusive relationships, she's sober, smiling and singing about being in love with music producer Kendu Isaacs, her fiancé, who waits patiently for Blige as she sits down to chat in a Manhattan studio. Chicly dressed in a brown leather jacket, matching knee-high boots and blue jeans, she looks far from the rugged, combat-boot-wearing homegirl she used to be. "You have to make the choice to be happy, to love yourself," she says.
Blige felt like anything but royalty growing up in a rough section of Yonkers, N.Y., where she and older sister LaTonya, an artist manager, were raised by their mother, Cora, a nurse, after their musician father, Thomas, left when Blige was 4. (She also has two younger half siblings, Bruce and Jonquell.) "Most of the time it was bad," says Blige of life in the projects. "There was abuse everywhere, neighbors getting beat up, something was always going down. So you grow up thinking, 'Oh, this is the way we're supposed to be treated.' "
A high school dropout, Blige turned to alcohol and drugs. "When I was 16 years old, lost, I had to do something. It all starts up with alcohol. And then that's not strong enough, and you move on to the next thing." Which for her was cocaine. "It was an escape, it was something to do to get away: 'I'm miserable, I ain't got nothing to do, I don't care if I live or die.' "
The substance abuse didn't stop even after Blige was discovered at 17 in 1988 when a karaoke recording of her singing Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture" landed in the hands of Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell and led to a label deal. The singer also fell into a string of bad relationships, including one with K-Ci Hailey of the R&B groups Jodeci and K-Ci and Jo Jo. "How can someone love you if you don't love you?" Blige says. "But I've forgiven him. And I've forgiven myself for not caring for me enough."
Blige hit rock bottom with alcohol and drugs when, she says, "I got to the point where it was like, 'Mary, you're really getting ready to die,' and I felt my spirit slowly slipping away from me. God must have known that I wasn't ready to go, and He sent someone to help." That someone was Isaacs, 35, whom she met while collaborating on a track with Queen Latifah in 2000. "We were both messed up, but we helped each other. Basically it was either stop drinking, stop hanging out, stop hurting myself or let this person go because he doesn't want to be here watching me destroy myself."
Isaacs got down on bended knee and proposed to Blige while the two were at his mother's house on Christmas Eve 2001. "She's my other half," he says. "She really completes me. That's my best friend in the world." Now, flashing a big rock on her ring finger, Blige says the two are planning to get married "like in the next month or so." But don't expect any Bennifer-like madness. "Honestly, we don't have any big wedding plans, because I'm not the type of woman that daydreamed about a big wedding as a child. I just don't feel like dealing with it. I'm like, 'Let's go some-where quiet, just me and you.' "
Although Blige hopes to get into acting and dreams of playing Billie Holiday, "No More Drama" has been her personal motto since her double-platinum album and hit song of the same name were released in 2001. She says she's "a whole other person" now, finally healthy and happy. "This Mary really wants to make sure that at the end of the day she's getting everything she deserves," she says. "This Mary right here knows her self-worth."