Mary J. Blige only gets better with time

Mary J. Blige has the same pain and grit in her voice of having lived a very full life as artists like Billie Holliday, Etta James and others. For a burgeoning hip-hop generation, Blige's voice and signature style of taking a hip-hop beat and adding her soulful vibe to it so changed the sound of music that she became the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Although "You Remind Me" was the first single, when "Real Love," hit the airwaves, it immediately became the summer joint that catapulted Blige into the spotlight.

Born Mary Jane Blige in January 1971, the Yonkers, New York native is the direct musical descendent of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan (everyone has heard Blige's rendition of Chaka's "Sweet Thing"), and when her debut album What's the 411? dropped, she turned the world of R&B on its head.

Led by the innovative eye of then-nineteen year old Uptown Records executive Sean "Puffy" Combs, Mary's look was the opposite of the R&B vixens ruling the charts. Puff put her in a man's suit in the video for "I'm Going Down," and she donned baseball caps and knee-guards for performances of "Real Love." Generally, she exuded a ghetto soul style so many could relate to.

Blige's troubles evolved as did her music, substance, and style. A tumultuous relationship with K-Ci of Jodeci, a group also developed by Puffy at the time, sent the singer spiraling through emotional turmoil that came out in her music. The album, My Life, was a turning point for Blige, with songs like "Be Happy" giving credence to her growth and desire for peace of mind.

The masses related to Blige because her troubled world was so real, and her very real desire to change resonated with so many young women. By the time she got to the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced "No More Drama," we were beginning to see a new Mary, one who believed in her mission and her voice and was striving for self-acceptance.

Several albums and a supreme love found in Kendu Issacs later, Mary gave us The Breakthrough. With her voice in top form, she damn near took home all the Grammys the following year and gave a beautiful performance of the album's smash shingle, "Be Without You," (with a little Bette Midler thrown in) and promptly ascended to the throne as a healed woman.

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Blige has shown her longevity, diversity (she's appeared alongside Elton John, U-2, Sting, and others), and continued appeal to the masses and she's only gotten better, time after time.

February has traditionally been the month when the contributions from, traditions of and historical facts about African-Americans are celebrated. In honor of Black History Month, Backbeat will be celebrating iconic figures in the world of black music.

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