Blige was born on January 11, 1971, in Bronx, New York, She is the second of four children born to mother Cora, a nurse, and second to father Thomas Blige, a jazz musician. The family subsisted on her mother’s earnings as a nurse after her father left the family in the mid-1970s, the former an alcoholic and the latter a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Blige spent her early years in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where she sang in a Pentecostal church. Blige later moved to Schlobohm Houses in Yonkers, New York, immediately north of New York City, where she lived with her mother and older sister. Blige dropped out of high school in her junior year.
Pursuing a musical career, Blige spent a short period of time in a Yonkers band named Pride with band drummer Eddie D’Aprile. In early 1988, she recorded an impromptu cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” at a recording booth in the Galleria Mall in White Plains, New York. Her mother’s boyfriend at the time later played the cassette for Jeff Redd, a recording artist and A&R runner for Uptown Records. Redd sent it to the president and CEO of the label, Andre Harrell. Harrell met with Blige and in 1989 she was signed to the label as a backing vocalist for artists such as Father MC, becoming the company’s youngest and first female artist.
After being signed to Uptown Records, Blige began working with record producer Puff Daddy. He became the executive producer and produced a majority of the album. The title, What’s the 411?, derived from Blige’s past occupation as a 4-1-1 operator; it was also an indication by Blige of being the “real deal”. The music was described as “revelatory on a frequent basis”. Blige was noted for having a “tough girl persona and streetwise lyrics”. On July 28, 1992, Uptown/MCA Records released What’s the 411?, to positive reviews from critics. What’s the 411? peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 and topped the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It also peaked at number 53 on the UK Albums Chart. It was certified three times Platinum by the RIAA. According to Entertainment Weekly’s Dave DiMartino, with the record’s commercial success and Blige’s “powerful, soulful voice and hip-hop attitude”, she “solidly connected with an audience that has never seen a woman do new jack swing but loves it just the same”. According to Dave McAleer, Blige became the most successful new female R&B artist of 1992 in the United States.
What’s the 411? earned her two Soul Train Music Awards in 1993: Best New R&B Artist and Best R&B Album, Female. It was also voted the year’s 30th best album in the Pazz & Jop—an annual poll of American critics nationwide, published by The Village Voice. By August 2010, the album had sold 3,318,000 copies in the US. What’s the 411? has since been viewed by critics as one of the 1990s’ most important records. Blige’s combination of vocals over a hip hop beat proved influential in contemporary R&B. With the album, she was dubbed the reigning “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” The album’s success spun off What’s the 411? Remix, a remix album released in December that was used to extend the life of the What’s the 411? singles on the radio into 1994, as Blige recorded her follow-up album. With combined sales of over 5 million albums and singles from her debut album, Blige was the best selling female artist on the Uptown label.
Following the success of her debut album and a remixed version in 1993, Blige went into the recording studio in the winter of 1993 to record her second album, My Life. The album was a breakthrough for Blige, who at this point was in a clinical depression, battling both drugs and alcohol- as well as being in an abusive relationship with K-Ci Hailey, which was reported in several tabloids. On November 29, 1994, Uptown Records/MCA Records released Blige’s second album, My Life, to positive reviews. The album debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 and number one of the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart for selling 481,000 copies in its first week and remaining atop the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart for an unprecedented eight weeks. It ultimately spent 46 weeks on the Billboard 200 and 84 weeks on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. In 2002, My Life was ranked number 57 on Blender’s list of the 100 greatest American albums of all-time. The following year, Rolling Stone placed it at number 279 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and in 2006, the record was included in Time’s 100 greatest albums of all-time list.
Blige involved herself in several outside projects, recording a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for the soundtrack to the FOX series New York Undercover, and “Everyday It Rains” (co-written by R&B singer Faith Evans) for the soundtrack to the hip hop documentary, The Show. Later in the year, she recorded the Babyface-penned and produced “Not Gon’ Cry“, for the soundtrack to the motion picture Waiting to Exhale. The platinum-selling single rose to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs in early 1996. Blige gained her first two Grammy nominations, and won the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for her collaboration with Method Man on “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By“. Shortly after, Blige was featured on Jay Z’s breakthrough single, “Can’t Knock the Hustle” from his debut Reasonable Doubt (1996) and with Ghostface Killah on “All That I Got Is You” from his debut, Ironman, which was also released that year. In addition, Blige co-wrote four songs, provided background vocals and was featured prominently on two singles with fellow R&B singer Case on his self-titled debut album (1996) including the US top 20 hit, “Touch Me, Tease Me“, which also featured then up-and-coming rapper Foxy Brown.
What’s the 411? highlights the featuring of woman centered narratives although in this album her narratives were regularly policed and told through male emcees. Nonetheless it marked the start of a transition towards black women centered narratives that focused on the daily experiences and troubles of the black experience through the lens of women rather than necessarily singing about black trauma. Treva B. Lindsey in her piece “If you look in my life: Love, Hip-hop soul, and contemporary African American womanhood” highlights the regulating by men saying, “Although the lyrics on What’s the 411? establish an African American woman-centered discourse, male artists’ words of adoration and longing first introduce listeners to Blige as a hip-hop storyteller. What’s the 411?, therefore, functions as an African American woman-centered storytelling space created largely by black men.
On April 22, 1997, MCA Records (parent company to Uptown Records, which was in the process of being dismantled) released Blige’s third album, Share My World. By then, she and Combs had dissolved their working relationship. In his place were the Trackmasters, who executive-produced the project along with Steve Stoute. Sharing production duties were producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, R. Kelly, Babyface and Rodney Jerkins. The album was made at a time when Blige was trying to “get her life together”, by trying to overcome drugs and alcohol, as well as the ending of her relationship with Hailey. After an encounter with a person who threatened her life the previous year, she tried to quit the unhealthy lifestyle and make more upbeat, happier music. As a result, songs such as “Love Is All We Need” and “Share My World” were made. Share My World debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and spawned five hit singles: “Love Is All We Need” (featuring Nas), “I Can Love You” (featuring Lil’ Kim), “Everything“, “Missing You” (UK only) and “Seven Days” (featuring George Benson). In February 1997, Blige performed her hit at the time, “Not Gon’ Cry“, at the 1997 Grammy Awards, which gained her a third Grammy Award nomination, her first for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, as Blige was recording the follow-up to My Life. In early 1998, Blige won an American Music Award for “Favorite Soul/R&B Album“. That summer, she embarked on the Share My World Tour, which resulted in a Gold-certified live album released later that year, simply titled The Tour. The album spawned one single, “Misty Blue“.
On August 17, 1999, Blige’s fourth album, titled Mary was released. It marked a departure from her more familiar hip hop-oriented sound; this set featured a more earthy, whimsical, and adult contemporary-tinged collection of songs, reminiscent of the 1970s to early 1980s soul. She also appeared on In Concert: A Benefit for the Crossroads Centre at Antigua with Eric Clapton in 1999. On December 14, 1999, the album was re-released as a double-disc set. The second disc was enhanced with the music videos for the singles “All That I Can Say” and “Deep Inside” and included two bonus tracks: “Sincerity” (featuring Nas, Andy Hogan and DMX) and “Confrontation” (a collaboration with hip hop duo Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap originally from their 1999 album The Tunnel). The Mary album was critically praised, becoming her most nominated release to date, and was certified double platinum. It was not as commercially successful as Blige’s prior releases, though all of the singles: “All That I Can Say“, “Deep Inside“, “Your Child“, and “Give Me You” performed considerably on the radio. In the meantime, MCA used the album to expand Blige’s demographic into the nightclub market, as club-friendly dance remixes of the Mary singles were released. The club remix of “Your Child” peaked at number-one on the Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart in October 2000. In 2001, a Japan-only compilation, Ballads, was released. The album featured covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed“, and previous recordings of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue“. In 1999, George Michael and Mary J. Blige covered the song ‘As’ written by Stevie Wonder, and worldwide outside of the United States, it was the second single from George Michael’s greatest hits album Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael. It became a top ten UK pop hit, reaching number four on the chart. It was not released on the U.S. version of the greatest hits collection or as a single in the U.S. Michael cited Blige’s record company president for pulling the track in America after Michael’s arrest for committing a lewd act.
In January 2001, Blige performed as a special guest in the Super Bowl XXXV halftime show.