A Diva Does It Her Way

MARY J. BLIGE HAS BEEN TO CHARM SCHOOL. Back in 1993, she was still overwhelmed by success and reportedly showed up at interviews high, drunk or not at all. Her advisers were bent on changing her world-be-damned ways, so they enrolled her in a school for round-the-way girls. "Hell, I already knew how to sit right and talk right," says Blige. "I just didn't want to be Ms. Prissy or any of that other bulls--t. And even if I didn't know how to set my fork down right, f--k it--this is the way I want to eat, so screw whoever doesn't like it." Got that? Blige prides herself on representing the hard-core urban world she knew growing up in the notorious "Slow Bomb" project in Yonkers, N.Y. And as she releases her third effort, "Share My World," she knows that change would be a crime her fans would never forgive.

Six years ago, Blige introduced the airwaves to hip-hop soul. She sang R&B love songs that had the edge and grit of Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan but also the hip-hop flava her generation demanded. Blige gave hip-hop culture a female face and was anointed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Her debut, "What's the 411?," went double platinum, and one remix marked the debut of the late Notorious B.I.G.

But for all the fly videos filled with Versace and Cristal, Blige wasn't having a good time. "I really didn't care about me or my career in the least bit," says Blige, dressed in a gold lame shirt and tight leopard pants. "I know it sounds weird, but it was one of the lowest points of my life. I didn't like myself and had a whole lot of people telling me there was something wrong with me."

Her insecurities, real and imagined, go way back. After dropping out of high school, Blige says, she got high and held odd jobs around Yonkers. She never considered singing. "People in church would always say, 'You should do something with your voice'," says Blige. "And I'd be like, "What? I am living in the projects in Yonkers. What am I going to do with my voice?' " Then her mom sent a demo tape to a friend who passed it on to MCA.

Despite that fairy-tale beginning, she believes her early career was marred by mismanagement and creative struggles. "It was the typical story," says Blige. "A lot of people were taking advantage of me. I mean, I had to worry about getting jumped and robbed growing up in the projects and then to leave that and have to worry about it again. How could I enjoy that?" Her first manager was the always controversial Sean (Puffy) Combs. She was first signed by an equally embattled record executive, Andre Harrell, then at Uptown. She later enlisted the financial advice of the still more controversial Death Row chief Marion (Suge) Knight.

Today none of those men has a part in Blige's career. "I'm happy now because I am single--meaning no man and in control," she says, laughing. "I've finally learned that you can't find happiness in a man or a substance. That has finally sunk in." Ironically, much of "Share My World" sounds like one sad plea for an attentive mate. Still, "Love Is All We Need" is upbeat and flashy, and Babyface's "Not Gon' Cry" is Blige's strongest performance to date. "World" may not have the intensity of her first album, but Blige's in-your-face presence is still unmatched. And that's most definitely the 411.