The main broadcast studio of the New York area's biggest pop radio station, Z100, boasts one of the most spectacular views this side of the Grand Canyon. Located on the 37th floor of a Jersey City high-rise on the western bank of the Hudson River, the studio's picture windows gaze out over the mouth of New York Harbor, the shiny towers of lower Manhattan, and, until a couple of years ago, the World Trade Center.
It was Sept. 15, 2001, when Mary J. Blige last stood in this room, and as she waits to tape a guest-DJ segment, the memories come flooding back. ''We could see the rubble piled all the way up,'' Blige remembers. ''I got this real nasty feeling in my stomach, because I knew bodies were still under there. I just felt terrible. To actually see the site so clearly from that window.... It was, like, right there.''
Spend any time with Mary J. Blige and a certain sadness inevitably oozes into the atmosphere. She's probably the greatest soul singer of her generation -- a voice streaked with hard-living grit, a repertoire littered with tales of bad times and heavy hearts. Since her 1992 debut, ''What's the 411?,'' Blige, 32, has enjoyed spectacular professional success and endured wrenching personal hardships. She's released five platinum-plus albums, scoring huge hits with gut-punching singles like ''Real Love,'' ''Not Gon' Cry,'' and ''Deep Inside.'' She's also touched her fans in ways most pop singers never even attempt, singing about her life with an unflinching, brutal honesty. ''I'm not ashamed or afraid of expressing and exposing myself in ways that people are afraid to express and expose themselves,'' she says, lounging on a couch in a suite at New York's Ritz-Carlton hotel a week after the Z100 taping. ''I don't let the opinions of the world turn me into a robot. I am flesh and blood. I go to the bathroom like you. I cry like you. I have saliva in my mouth like you. I deal with insecurities like you. Mary doesn't mind getting ugly.''
What trauma-starved acolytes will make of her new CD, ''love & life,'' is anybody's guess. Musically, it's a throwback to the sound of her first two releases: the career-making ''411'' and its acutely gloomy follow-up, 1994's ''My Life,'' each of which went triple platinum. The new album reunites Blige with P. Diddy, the prime architect of her early sound -- a fusion of R&B vocals and rap beats that earned her the title Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. ''I wanted to go directly at 'My Life' and 'What's the 411?''' says Diddy, who produced most of ''love & life.'' ''It's really part 3 of the trilogy. A lot of people have come behind her and done [that style], but Mary was the originator. That's the style we created together. That's what people know us for.''
Despite the familiar-sounding production, ''love & life'' is a big departure in one key way: Mary J. Blige is...happy. This is due, she says, to a renewed sense of self-worth and a great relationship with her fiancé, Kendu Isaacs, 35. First single ''Love @ 1st Sight'' is already charting, but are the hardcore faithful -- the folks who say her confessional classics literally saved their lives -- ready for an upbeat Mary? ''I know a lot of people want me to be unhappy, because that's what they identify with,'' she says. ''But if they were smart, they would understand that Mary's not going to leave them out there. Mary understands that they're struggling. I have songs on the album that represent that. I understand; I was there. But I'm no longer hating Mary. I really like her. I really love her. I think she's cool. And I accept the things about her that are not cool. The album is about finding love in yourself so that you can find it everywhere else.''
When Blige released ''My Life'' in '94, she wasn't nearly so optimistic. She'd grown up in a rough housing project in Yonkers, singing in the church choir and at school. (A 7-year-old Blige made quite an impression singing both parts of Peaches & Herb's ''Reunited'' at a talent show.) She scored a record deal almost by chance when she recorded a karaoke version of Anita Baker's ''Caught Up in the Rapture'' at the mall just for kicks and a friend of a friend of a friend passed it on to Uptown Records president Andre Harrell. Her 1992 debut, ''What's the 411?,'' made her a star.