Mary Jane Blige was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Jan. 11, 1971. The future songbird would spend her early childhood years in Georgia, where she attended a Pentecostal Church and developed an appreciation for gospel music. After her father left her family in the mid-'70s, she moved with her mother and sister to the Schlobohm housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y.
When Blige was five years old in 1976, a male caregiver sexually molested her. "That thing followed me all my life — the shame of thinking my molestation was my fault," she has said. "It led me to believe I wasn't worth anything."
In 1988, 17-year-old Blige went to a karaoke booth at a mall in White Plains, N.Y., and recorded a rendition of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture." The cassette was later played for Andre Harrell, then president and CEO of Uptown Records. He signed her in 1989.
What's the 411? debuted in 1992. The album, which blended Mary J.'s raspy, gospel-inflected voice and the beats of Uptown's 19-year-old phenom producer and A&R executive, Sean "Puffy" Combs, went platinum and catapulted the singer into stardom. Combs helped hone Blige's around-the-way girl image — punctuated by her tomboyish wardrobe of baseball hats and baggy clothes. Harrell, Combs' boss, dubbed Blige the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." The name stuck.
Her classic second album, My Life, released in 1994, is an R&B classic and made Rolling Stone's list of 100 Best Albums of the 1990s. Her battles with substance abuse, depression and what she has openly called an abusive relationship with K-Ci of the R&B group Jodeci served as the material for the singer-songwriter. Memorable tracks on My Life: "I Love You," "Be Happy," and "Mary Jane (All Night Long)."
She's covered and sampled many classics, but one of her best-known remakes is a 1995 duet with Method Man — a rap version of Marvin Gaye's "You're All I Need to Get By." The song became the quintessential hip-hop love song, earned Blige her first Grammy and popularized collaborations between female vocalists and rappers.
After dating on and off throughout most of the 1990s, Blige and boyfriend K-Ci ended their troubled, abusive relationship in 1997. She has since openly discussed the damaging love affair and the cycle of abuse and addiction that plagued her during those years.
Like many recording artists of her generation, Blige has dabbled in acting. Her first role was opposite Q-Tip in the 2001 indie Prison Song. Four years later, she appeared in the off-Broadway play The Exonerated. She also had a cameo in Tyler Perry's 2009 film I Can Do Bad All By Myself and will co-star in the upcoming film adaptation of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages.
In 2001, No More Drama, her fifth studio album, introduced a new Blige — one who was determined to start a new chapter and overcome the pain of her past. Her cathartic performance of the album's title track — a song that defined her new outlook — at the 2002 Grammys will go down as one of the award show's most memorable moments.
In her VH1 Behind the Music special, Blige said that it was meeting music executive Kendu Isaacs that made her want to overcome her struggle with addiction. "I stopped drinking," she said. "It was willpower. It was prayer. It was really hard. But I cared so much about him, I didn't want to be just this alcoholic burden on him." On Dec. 7, 2003, the star married Isaacs, who's her manager and confidant.
"Be Without You," a song from Blige's 2005 album, The Breakthrough, remained on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart for 75 weeks — the longest any R&B song has ever stayed on the chart in its existence. The album earned her eight Grammy nominations and three of the awards, including Best R&B Album.
It was love at first sight in 2008 when Blige purchased an eight-bedroom mansion modeled after a French country manor on 4.2 acres of land in the swanky Saddle River section of New Jersey. Priced at just over $12 million, the estate includes a 14-seat movie theater, a fitness center, a hardwood basketball court, an elevator, gourmet kitchen, eight bathrooms, a spiral staircase and a wine tasting room.
Along with the music executive Steve Stoute, Blige co-founded the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN), whose mission is to empower and encourage women by shaping and supporting programs that foster education, career development, strong self-esteem and personal growth, in 2008. In an interview with Oprah, Blige said these are the things she craved as a child, adding, "If you save women, you save the world."
Blige performed at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Watch her get down at Obama's Neighborhood Inaugural Ball.
After a 20-plus year hiatus from high school, Blige completed her GED in 2008 and announced she would be attending Howard University. Not so, said the HBCU, but representatives from the school made sure to add that the superstar was welcome to apply.
My Life Il … The Journey Continues, her tenth album, hits stores on Nov. 21. Blige told radio personality Angie Martinez that the goal of the album wasn't to repeat her classic My Life but "to show people we survived. Our journey continues. We grow through adversity."