Mary J. Blige as part of Jazz in the Gardens at Sun Life Stadium March 17 and 18

Fierce, strong, independent — Mary J. Blige is now a full-grown, 41-year-old diva known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But like so many enormously talented women in the music business, she has endured seriously hard times. Throughout her teens and 20s, she struggled with drugs, alcohol, and herself. And fame almost killed her.

"When I was 16 years old, I was already suffering from drugs and alcohol," Blige says. "But it was just easier to get it and there was so much around me when I got into the music business."

With money, access, and a constantly swirling entourage of party people, hangers-on, and bad influences, Blige became trapped by her own worst habits. "You're just going through the motions. You're hanging out. You're drinking. You're doing drugs. You're abusing your life.

"I was going to spiral out of control, crash, and burn," she admits. "But I just couldn't stop, because I was trying to numb myself. So I kept drinking and drinking and doing what I was doing. But then one day, I almost lost my life. And I was like, 'You know what? I don't wanna die. I'm gonna choose life.'

"I finally said, 'I'm not going to hurt myself anymore,'" she explains. "And once things cleared up, I saw everything. But when you're in the middle of it and you're just spinning, you can't see anything."

That near-death experience became the definitive turning point in Blige's struggle with drugs, alcohol, and herself. She cleaned up. She took control. And there haven't been any relapses. "Ever since that day," she insists with slow, careful emphasis, "I've been doing everything to choose life — loving myself, praying, really supporting Mary, cutting the drugs out completely."

But even though her hardest, darkest, most dangerous times are more than a decade behind her, Blige still sees flashes of herself and her narrowly avoided fate in the tragically early deaths of pop icons such as Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. "I look at my own life, what I was living, and what could've happened to me," she explains, "and then I looked at Amy Winehouse and I wanted her to beat those things. But she didn't. And it really hurt.

"It was the same thing with Whitney. I wanted her to make it, here on Earth. I didn't want her to die like that. I didn't want her to die at all," she says, her voice cracking.

"It makes you look at how fragile life is. It's precious and you gotta listen to your instincts, use your intuition, take care of you, love you. It's just not cool to watch young people die. That hurts."

Now almost exactly 17 years after releasing her sophomore album, My Life, on November 28, 1994, Blige has unveiled its sequel, My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1), a testament to her fierceness, strength, and independence. "In 1994, those words — My Life — meant, 'My life is in danger. Help me.' But today, they mean, 'My journey continues. I survived. I will live. I'm gonna make it.'

"There are still plenty of acts in the life of Mary J. Blige," the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul says with a laugh. "There will be Act 80. Because I want to live to see 80 or 89. And if I'm healthy and in my right mind, I want to live to see 100. I just wanna cherish this thing called life.

"I don't wanna go. Life is a precious gift. It's too precious."

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S. Pajot