For Mary J. Blige, making her 1994 masterpiece “My Life” was about much more than selling records — it was about saving her life.
“I was singing for my life literally,” says the 50-year-old singer in the new documentary “Mary J. Blige’s My Life,” which premieres Friday on Amazon Prime.
“This was, like, a turning point. This was a decision I had to make to either live or die. Most of the times I was just depressed and didn’t want to live because I didn’t love myself.”
Substance abuse, an abusive relationship with former Jodeci crooner K-Ci Hailey and depression formed a toxic cocktail that threatened to dethrone — and destroy — the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul after her groundbreaking debut, 1992’s “What’s the 411?”
After first turning to substance abuse as a teenager enduring a tough upbringing in the Yonkers projects — “We would go to the pier, and we would drink our pain away” — Blige used drugs and alcohol to cope with her anxiety after suddenly going from the streets to stardom.
In fact, her newfound fame was a kind of monster. “So I’m scared to death of myself,” she says. “So [I’ll do] whatever it takes for me to be comfortable — if I need to drink some more, if I need to do some more coke, whatever I need to do to loosen up and try to take this in.”
Despite hits such as “You Remind Me,” “Real Love” and “Reminisce,” Blige says, “I couldn’t even enjoy what was going on. I couldn’t even enjoy my success.”
Her turbulent romance with Hailey — whose Jodeci was one of the hottest groups in R&B at the time — only added to her personal drama. “I loved him, but neither one of us could handle the success of our lives,” she says. “So it became very dark, the whole thing, and abusive.”
For Blige, it was continuing a cycle of abuse. “I’ve had to physically fight for my life a lot,” she says. “My mom had to suffer a lot of physical abuse as well so, as a little girl, I saw her, this little woman, fighting. So when it all started to happen to me, all I could think about was my mom.”
Still, she struggled with leaving that abusive relationship. “It’s not simple or black and white to just walk out the door when you’re just beyond insecure because you think that this is the best that you can get,” says Blige. “I will never understand why we stay so long.”
That relationship also sent her into a deep depression. “It was just one big giant hole of darkness,” says Blige, adding that the “snowball effect” of it all triggered some childhood trauma, including being molested as a 5-year-old girl. “That depression from that relationship rewinded life and brought back a whole bunch of other stuff that I’d never dealt with.”
And with no self-love, her behavior became self-destructive: “I was just trying to drink my life away, take drugs till I die, whatever it was.”
But Blige poured all of that pain into “My Life” classics such as “Be Happy,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and the title track alongside producer and executive producer Sean “Diddy” Combs (back when he was “Puffy”), who also served as executive producer of the documentary. “We made a connection through the pain,” says Combs, who was dealing with his own heartache after his breakup with stylist Misa Hylton. “From that point on, we was like, ‘F—k that, we gon’ bring the pain!’ ”
No doubt, “My Life” helped Blige to heal and eventually be at peace with herself. And 27 years later, she says, “The sadness in that album, it’s very triumphant now.”