Mary J. Blige is on a mission to educate the world about one of her favorite singers. ''It bugs me out that only 1 out of 20 people knows about Teena Marie,'' laments Blige. In fact, Queen Mary constantly invokes the funk singer-songwriter's name in interviews, hoping that ''maybe young people will go seek out her records.'' Apparently, Blige's publicity crusade is paying off: Marie's new CD, ''La Dona'' -- her first major-label effort in 14 years -- just debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard chart.
Though she's widely considered the best white soul singer of all time, Marie -- who unleashed her piercing soprano on a steady stream of radio staples in the '80s (including ''Lovergirl'') -- never achieved the same commercial success as her R&B peers. She slipped even further off the public's radar after the release of 1990's ''Ivory,'' when her priorities shifted to raising her daughter. But ever since Lauryn Hill cooed the hook to Marie's hit ''Ooo La La La'' on the Fugees' 1996 song ''Fu-Gee-La,'' there's been an ever-increasing crop of prominent black artists -- from Common and Gerald Levert (who appear on ''Dona'') to Alicia Keys and Beyonce -- giving her props.
The star-filled fan club even extends to the Dirty South rap clique Cash Money, who signed the songstress to their Classics label. ''At first I thought it was kinda strange because our music is so different,'' admits Marie. ''But I was one of the first female rappers [on 1981's ''Square Biz''], so it's kinda cool that I ended up here.''
Teena's triumphant return even has some using the L-word: ''legend.'' ''The first time I heard that expression [in reference to me] was in 1990 on BET, and I was stunned,'' recalls the singer. But that high praise comes as no surprise to Blige, who places the 48-year-old in the pantheon of R&B greats alongside Aretha and Chaka. ''[When I was] a little girl growing up in the projects, she was like the queen of every black person's home,'' says Blige. ''She was just the most amazing voice I had ever heard...and still is.''
Blige even predicts a rush to cover one of Marie's signature ballads, though she'd like to go one better: ''I would love a duet.'' So how about it, Teena? ''That would be fabulous.'' Maybe even legendary.