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Songbook: How Mary J. Blige Became The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Through Empathy, Attitude And An Open Heart
With 14 albums and nine GRAMMYs under her belt, Mary J. Blige puts no limitations on the music she creates. Explore her extensive catalog of hits, soundtrack favorites, stunning covers and impactful remixes.
Mary J. Blige’s tireless work ethic, extraordinary singing talent and soul-level relatability are the secret ingredients to her longevity as a recording artist. Her discography includes nine GRAMMY wins and 37 nominations, and the multi-hyphenate artist continues to demonstrate that there's no limit to her creativity.
Blige is nominated for six awards at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album for Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe). The title track is nominated in three categories: Record Of The Year, Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song, and "Here With Me" is up for Best R&B Performance.
Good Morning Gorgeous encapsulates the true self-love Blige felt after healing from divorce, abusive relationships and depression. As she explains on an album interlude "good morning gorgeous" is the affirmation Blige now says to herself in the mornings — and, for the first time, she believes it. And when it comes to the odds of adding to her GRAMMY wins on Feb. 5, it’s safe to wager that Blige thinks they’re sound.
"Bet on me, why not?" Blige sings in the chorus of the album’s "On Top." "Don’t act like I never left on top."
For her resonant musical messages, Blige has been crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But she’s also an industry professional who deftly sets and iterates on trends, keeping even her earliest releases relevant and exciting.
Blige became a record label boss when she released Good Morning Gorgeous as a joint venture between Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment and her own Mary Jane Productions. She’s a frequent executive producer of her albums and multimedia projects and is set to executive produce two fictional films for Lifetime in 2023 through her production company Blue Butterfly. Real Love and Strength of a Woman are both named for her songs. Real Love is described as a romantic drama set in an upstate New York college.
After more than 30 years of recording, Blige has amassed an acclaimed and extensive discography of consummate original classics, deep soundtrack cuts, scene-stealing covers and remixes. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist above and use the below guide as a diving board into a career full of the empathetic pain, healing, promise and happiness that she has shared with unflinching honesty and vulnerability.
The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul
Blige was living in a housing project in Yonkers, N.Y. when the late Andre Harrell signed her to his Uptown Records, which released her 1992 debut album, What’s The 411? Harrell coined the nickname Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to describe the fresh way Blige's music melded rap beats with R&B hooks.
Harrell and his then-intern Sean Combs gave her a rugged style to match her music, with boots and baseball caps instead of heels and sparkles. Young women from the inner city saw themselves in Blige's aesthetic and in her rawness.
Yet admiration for Blige’s powerful vocals and unique tone grew before her name was ever recognized. Blige was first heard as a backup singer for Father MC’s 1990 hit "I'll Do 4 U" and, the following year, her own single "You Remind Me" (from the Strictly Business soundtrack) gave Blige some street buzz to lead into What’s The 411? The hip-hop swagger of "Real Love" — which samples "Top Billin'" by Audio Two, a beat highly familiar to New York City fans at the time — served as her formal introduction to the world and remains a calling card decades later.
The My Life Era (Extended Mix)
Contrary to the music industry’s sophomore slump stereotype, Blige’s second album is a seminal work. 1994's My Life became career-defining, and an album that she has subsequently reflected on to show her growth.
The album is a reflection of her volatile relationship with singer Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, Blige explained in Mary J. Blige’s My Life, a documentary she executive produced for Amazon Studios in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Throughout, Blige keenly pairs heights of happiness with depths of her despair on songs like "You Bring Me Joy," "I’m Goin’ Down," "I Love You" and "Be Happy."
"The whole 'My Life' album is, 'Please love me, don’t go, I need you,'" she said in the documentary. Combs, then known as Puffy, continued: "When she made that album, she was fighting for her heart." (Combs and Harrell served as executive producers of My Life.)
Blige and Combs never collaborated quite so closely again, though they remained friends. Combs didn’t produce 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), but he appears in a telephone skit to open the album, similarly to how he did on My Life. The sequel features guest stars such as Nas, Beyoncé and Drake.
Though her earlier works hinted at the potential, My Life most firmly established Blige as a beacon for hurt hearts everywhere. In a 2021 interview with Trevor Noah, Blige described how childhood physical and mental abuse, as well as her relationship with Hailey, led to substance abuse and depression. When she used the songs on My Life as a way of saying she needed help, "four million people responded and said, ‘'We need help, too.'"
Covers, Collaborations And Remixes
Cover songs have been an acclaimed — and long-lasting — part of Blige’s career ever since she sang "Sweet Thing" by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan on What’s The 411? Blige released her hugely popular version of Rose Royce’s "I’m Goin’ Down" in 1994, which reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, and she beat Beyoncé to the punch in 2000 with her take on Maze’s "Before I Let Go."
But her ascension to rock star status has a lot to do with her scene-stealing covers of songs of stadium-level acts. Blige has delivered epic versions of songs by Led Zeppelin ("Stairway To Heaven") and Sting ("Whenever I Say Your Name"), and when she collaborated with U2 on a new version of "One," there’s an audible battle with Bono as to whose song this is now.
Blige collaborates with rap, R&B, rock, country, electronic and classical artists with equal ease, and her discography includes work with late legends, including "Holdin’ On" with Aretha Franklin and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "As" with George Michael. She won her first career GRAMMY in 1995 for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for "I'll Be There For You / You're All I Need To Get By," a collaboration with Method Man that covers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
A dance music collaboration with London duo Disclosure called "F for You" in 2013 helped to catalyze an entire album from the Capital of England called The London Sessions. The 2014 album features a second collaboration with Disclosure ("Right Now"), a cameo from UK garage DJ/producer MJ Cole ("Nobody But You") and guest vocals from Scottish singer Emeli Sandé ("Whole Damn Year").
Blige has long understood the potency of both hip-hop and dance music remixes, which remain a part of her single roll-outs. Over the years, she created a remix album of songs from What’s The 411?, and in 2002 released club-focused reworks of songs from No More Drama, Mary and Share My World on Dance For Me.
Blige's remixes also pay homage. On her cover of First Choice’s "Let No Man Put Asunder," Blige honors singers who came before by featuring guest vocals from the group's lead singer, Rochelle Fleming.
Her Rap Alter Ego
Blige has rapped a few times on her albums, beginning with a verse in "Love," from 2001’s No More Drama. She won her first solo GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2003 for "He Think I Don't Know" from No More Drama. By the time she rhymed on "Enough Cryin’" and "Take Me As I Am" (both from 2005’s The Breakthrough), her rap alter ego had a name: Brook Lynn.
Her cadence caught the ear of her friend Busta Rhymes, who recruited Blige for his "Touch It (Remix)" the next year. "The haters plot and they watch, lookin’ all pale/While I’m on a yacht overseas, doin’ my nails," she raps alongside Busta, Missy Elliott and Rah Digga.
Brook Lynn took a hiatus for a few years after that, but she came back blazing in 2011. "Homegirls love me and we be ridin' Phantoms/Mad chicks hate me 'cause I be writin' anthems," she rhymes on "Midnight Drive" from My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1).
Since "You Remind Me," her first Top 40 entry, appeared on the soundtrack to Strictly Business, Blige has written stunning original songs such as "I Can See in Color" for Precious (2009). She has also licensed other hits to dozens of movies.
After years of contributing to soundtracks, Blige created her own as executive producer and performer of the soundtrack for Think Like a Man Too (2014), which includes a cover of Shalamar’s "A Night to Remember" and guest appearances by Pharrell Williams and The-Dream.
Blige has been cast in several acting roles since she guest starred in an episode of The Jamie Foxx Show in 1998 and has played fictional characters as well as real life figures Betty Shabazz (Betty and Coretta) and Dinah Washington (Respect). She received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for her work on 2017 film Mudbound.
More than 30 years into her recording career, Blige appears happy, energized and ready to add more hits and heartfelt anthems to her songbook.
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GRAMMY Rewind: Beyoncé Strives For Accountability And Change After Winning A GRAMMY For 'Lemonade' In 2017
As Beyoncé accepted the GRAMMY for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2017, she stressed that it's vital to "learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes."
At the height of America's tense political climate, Beyoncé's Lemonade brought confidence to Black women nationwide silenced by misogynoir. It was a celebration of unapologetic femininity and southern culture while also taking back the power in relationships stained by infidelity and generational trauma. As Beyoncé explained in her 2017 GRAMMY acceptance speech, the intention of Lemonade was "to give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness, and our history."
In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we turn back the clock to the evening Beyoncé made her empowering speech after winning Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Fresh off of her iconic, nine-minute performance of Lemonade's vulnerable deep cuts, "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles," Beyoncé was glowing as she took the stage to accept her golden gramophone.
"Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to beautifully capture the profundity of deep southern culture," Beyoncé proudly praised before acknowledging her husband, kids, and fans.
"It's important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror... and have no doubt that they're beautiful, intelligent and capable," Beyoncé said. "This is something that I want for every child of every race. And I feel it's vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes."
Press play on the video above to watch the entirety of Beyoncé's thoughtful acceptance speech for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2017 GRAMMY Awards, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
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What Does U2 Stand For? To Mark 'Songs Of Surrender,' 6 Facts About The 22-Time GRAMMY Winners
One of the most innovative, popular and acclaimed rock bands of all time, U2 are reexamining their past on their new album, 'Songs of Surrender.'
From their songs to their vision to their constant evolution, U2 have earned their place as one of the most popular and innovative rock bands of all time — and they have an astounding 22 GRAMMYs to show for it.
With their earthy, tactile first three albums, 1980's Boy, 1981's October, and 1983's War, the band positioned themselves at the vanguard of post-punk. Summarily, they hurtled past its parameters with a little help from producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, culminating in their 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree.
After ripping up the rulebook with 1991's deconstructionist Achtung Baby, U2 spent the rest of the decade throwing electro-tinged curveball after curveball with Pop and Zooropa. The band then settled into something of an elder-statesmen role with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and its consolidative, substantive follow-ups.
Today, U2 remain intact without a single lineup change — save drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. having to sit out a Vegas residency due to recovery from surgery. Partly as a tribute to their astonishing longevity, U2 released the Songs of Surrender — the third in their Songs of… series — on Mar. 17.
Part retrospective, part reimagining, Songs of Surrender culls 40 songs from their past — including some of their biggest hits, like "One," "Pride (In the Name of Love" and "With or Without You" — and renders them in soft-focus minimalism.
Accompanied by a memoir by Bono, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, the album acts as a panorama of U2's singular landscape — the spiritual searches, the self-conscious reinventions, the sociopolitical grandstanding, the triumphs and travails.
With the band back in the ether, here are some answers to common questions about Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
What Does U2 Stand For?
While the band shares a name with an American spy plane, the exact origin of the name is unclear. What's established, however, is that they were previously known as Feedback — one of the only musical terms they knew — and the Hype before settling on the name.
In a BBC interview, Bono and the Edge explained that a friend curated a list of names for them, and they chose U2 because they hated it the least. Bono remarked that the name gave off "futuristic" images of "the spy plane" and "the U-boat." (The name still makes him "cringe.")
What Is U2's Latest Album?
After Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, U2 have released Songs of Surrender, which shrinks down the often grandiose arrangements of their past work and examines them with a new lens. Produced by the Edge, the album is spread across four discs, each named after a band member.
"I just need to be more silent, and to surrender to my band as being at the core of what I'm trying to do with my life, surrender to my wife," Bono recently told NPR. "And when I say 'surrender,' I do not mean making peace with the world... I'm trying to make peace with myself, I'm trying to make peace with my maker, but I am not trying to make peace with the world.
"The world is a deeply unfair place, and I'm ready to rumble," he continued. "I'm keeping my fists up for that one."
What Is U2's Latest Book?
Bono has characterized the operating principle behind Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story as such: "I was hoping to draw in detail what I'd previously only sketched in songs. The people, places, and possibilities in my life."
Organized around the 40 selections in its attendant album with plenty of off-ramps and asides, Surrender illuminates hidden corners of Bono's history, faith and psyche like never before.
Why Is Bono Called Bono?
Born Paul David Hewson, Bono was nicknamed Bono Vox as a teen in Dublin, when he and his friends were part of a surrealist street gang named Lypton Village.
As they were all assigned nicknames, Hewson assumed the moniker Bono Vox — the name of a hearing-aid store near where they grew up, which itself came from the Latin word Bonavox, which means "good voice."
Are U2 Touring In 2023?
Come fall 2023, U2 will return to the stage after a four-year absence for a Las Vegas residency focusing on their classic Achtung Baby album.
In an unprecedented move, Mullen won't be part of the proceedings, though the band looks forward to his return.
"No one is more disappointed than us that Larry won't be joining us in Vegas," the Edge told The Telegraph, adding: "In the history of U2, you can count the shows we've missed on the fingers of one hand."
What Was U2's Biggest Hit?
From a Billboard Hot 100 standpoint, the U2 song that's made the biggest commercial splash is "With or Without You," that skyscraping, eros-meets-agape wonder from The Joshua Tree. (That song stayed at No. 1 for three weeks; "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" remained in the same position for two.)
And when you listen to the hushed, humbled rendition of "With or Without You" just released on their new album, you hear not only how their artistic achievements have resonated through the decades.
Instead hear the four men not as rock titans, but as human beings — searching, striving, and ultimately surrendering.
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The Nicki Minaj Essentials: 15 Singles To Showcase Her Rap and Pop Versatility
Celebrating Nicki Minaj's new record label and her first single of 2023, "Red Ruby Da Sleeze," take a listen to 15 songs that highlight her talent as an MC and singer.
Nicki Minaj is making some serious moves right now. Within the same week, the 10-time GRAMMY nominee released her first single of the year, "Red Ruby Da Sleeze," and announced that she has started her own record label — which has already signed several artists, including Rico Danna, a rapper from her hometown neighborhood of South Jamaica in Queens.
This multi-hyphenate star is clearly stepping on the gas for 2023. But as her Barbz know, Minaj has been hustling for more than 15 years, and it's still paying off: Just last year, the rapper landed her third No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Super Freaky Girl" — her first unaccompanied chart-topper.
As the latest Nicki chapter begins, get familiar with the essential songs in her discography that brought her to this point. Starting with the standout track from her very first mixtape, GRAMMY.com presents a roadmap to understanding the music of Nicki Minaj.
"Can't Stop, Won't Stop" (2007)
Minaj collaborated with Lil Wayne — an early mentor — on her first mixtape, Playtime Is Over. It's the first hint of the musical chemistry between the two, as they trade rhymes over the instrumental of "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" by Young Gunz.
"Now, it's not hard to find me/ Top behind me/ You be Harry Potter, and I'll be Hermione," Minaj rapped to Tunechi on the track, foreshadowing how big they'd become together in the years to come.
"Itty Bitty Piggy" (2009)
The breakout song from her third mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, Minaj declares that she's "the baddest in the game" on "Itty Bitty Piggy."
"It's me — I win, you lose!" she taunts on the track. Elsewhere, Minaj also shows off her confidence by offering to sign her fans' boobs and inviting other female rappers to pick her fruit out and to be her personal shoppers.
"Up Out My Face (Remix)" (2010)
Mariah Carey recruited Minaj for this sassy duet that serves as an early warning shot that she was ready for her pop music close-up. She distinguishes herself by rapping about cheaters and scrubs in American and English accents.
"My Chick Bad" (2010)
Minaj's sports and horror icon-laden verse on Ludacris' "My Chick Bad" shows how she was morphing into an outsized pop culture character of her own.
"Running down the court, I'm dunkin' on 'em, Lisa Leslie," she rapped, namechecking a WNBA star. On the track, she also compares herself to Friday the 13th movie killer Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger from Nightmare on Elm Street.
"Moment 4 Life" (2010)
"Moment 4 Life," which features a guest verse from Drake, is the song that catapulted her from the early fame of appearing on songs from other artists to becoming recognized as a solo artist in her own right. The sixth collaboration between the two friends is also the most acclaimed of their work together, as the song was nominated for Best Rap Performance at the 54th GRAMMYs.
"In this very moment, I'm king," she proclaimed on the song.
"Roman's Revenge" (2010)
A week after dropping jaws with her guest verse as her alter ego "Roman Zolanski" on Kanye West's "Monster" (which also features Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Bon Iver), Minaj released her own full-length song called "Roman's Revenge." It's an electric duet featuring Eminem that finds her spitting lyrical fire like "a dungeon dragon."
"Super Bass" (2011)
Minaj's first solo top five hit — landing at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 — solidified her pop star status with its catchy, sung chorus. The endearingly bouncy love song has earned a rare Diamond certification for sales of more than 10 million in the U.S. — her only single to achieve the feat to date.
Though Minaj had flirted with EDM-style tracks alongside David Guetta in 2011, her own club track "Starships" has the most soaring energy. Produced by RedOne, the song showcases Minaj's versatility with singing and rapping for an international audience.
A playful interpolation of Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 booty-popping hit "Baby Got Back," "Anaconda" is one of many examples of Minaj's sampling prowess. On the fun, uptempo track, she celebrates the pleasures of "missing no meals" and shouts out bodies that have extra to grab. The cheeky tune nabbed Minaj her first GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Song in 2015.
"Bang Bang" (2014)
An infectious hit that earned Minaj her sole nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, "Bang Bang" positioned Minaj as a pop star alongside Jessie J and Ariana Grande. As she raps on the song, she brings "Nicki full throttle" with her verse, with dextrous rhyming as well as vocals that keep up with the powerful pipes of her collaborators.
"Truffle Butter" (2015)
Arguably the highlight of Minaj's collaborations with Drake and Lil Wayne, "Truffle Butter" finds the three rappers flowing over a slowed-down and pleasingly off-kilter dance beat, which was sampled from Maya Jane Coles' 2011 house music stunner, "What They Say." "Truffle Butter" earned Minaj one of her three GRAMMY nominations in 2016, and her second for Best Rap Performance.
In this boom-bap-style track, Minaj takes on the role of Chun-Li, the woman in the Street Fighter video game series, spitting her verses over a horn riff that propels the listener into an action adventure. Though the character is not an antagonistic player in the game, Minaj crafts Chun-Li as a villain, spitting, "They need rappers like me/ So they can get on their f—ing keyboards and make me/ The bad guy, Chun-Li."
Recognizing Minaj's global appeal, Colombian reggaeton artist Karol G reached out to collaborate on "Tusa." The bilingual song brought some significant firsts for Minaj: it was No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart in the United States, topped pop charts all over South America and was nominated for both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year at the Latin GRAMMYs in 2020.
"In her verse, she says: 'It's me and Karol G, and we let the rats talk.' I died, I revived, I died and revived again until I understood Nicki Minaj had said my name in her verse," Karol G excitedly told Billboard.
"Do We Have a Problem" (2022)
Minaj's versatility as an MC shines on her recent collaboration with Lil Baby, which is accompanied by a mini movie where she plays a sexy and fearsome double agent. Her lyrical fierceness is distinct from her pop songs, and is a welcome return to her earliest approach to rapping — with her voice taking multiple tempo twists and turns along the way.
"Red Ruby Da Sleeze" (2023)
Minaj's Trinidadian roots shine through as she weaves patois into her rhymes on "Red Ruby Da Sleeze." The beat and vocals are sampled from Lumidee's song "Never Leave You (Uh Oh)," As her first release of 2023, "Red Ruby Da Sleeze" helps Minaj make a strong statement that she's still at the top of her game — and has the staying power of a true queen.
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Listen To GRAMMY.com's Women's History Month 2023 Playlist: Swim In The Divine Feminine With These 40 Songs By Rihanna, SZA, Miley Cyrus, BLACKPINK & More
Who run the world? Harness positive energy during Women's History Month with this immersive playlist honoring Beyoncé, Rina Sawayama, Kim Petras, and more female musicians.
In the words of recent GRAMMY winner Lizzo, it's bad b— o'clock. To kick off Women's History Month, GRAMMY.com is celebrating with an extensive playlist spotlighting women's divine musical artistry. Perpetually shaping, reinvigorating, and expanding genres, women's creative passion drives the music industry forward.
This March, get ready to unlock self-love with Miley Cyrus' candid "Flowers," or hit the dancefloor with the rapturous Beyoncé's "I'm That Girl." Whether you're searching for the charisma of Doja Cat's "Woman" or confidence of Rihanna's "B— Better Have My Money," this playlist stuns with diverse songs honoring women's fearlessness and innovation.
Women dominate the music charts throughout the year, but this month, dive into their glorious energy by pressing play on our curated Women's History Month playlist, featuring everyone from Dua Lipa to Missy Elliott to Madonna to Kali Uchis.
Listen below on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.