Ladies First: Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Jill Scott

Hip-hop may be dead, but R&B is alive and kicking with artists Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Jill Scott holding it down

Rounding up three multiplatinum, Grammy-winning chart-toppers is no small feat, especially when they're stationed in different cities and different time zones. Did we mention that one of them was on tour (Mary), one had just come off tour (Jill), and the other was between tours (Alicia)?

For us, Alicia, Mary and Jill are the truth and the light in R&B. During the past year, they, along with other female singers, have bumped the 'hood boys off the top of the charts. No offense, . fellas, but it's always ladies first here. As the following excerpts from individual chats with each artist reveal, when it comes to penning hits, embracing success, and keeping ahead of the curve, it's always about the music.

Essence: One thing you all have in common is that you each had a debut album that was a phenomenal success. How do you feel when you hear those songs now?

Mary J. Blige: It's been about six months since I've listened to What's the 411? I was in Japan working out, and when I heard it, I could definitely feel my youth, but I could also hear that I've always had an old soul. When I think back to that time, I remember that I was singing to escape. I understand that some people are stuck in that place, but I firmly believe that if you don't evolve and grow, you will die.

Essence: From the outside looking in, it seems that success has been yours since day one, but there probably were, and are, disappointments. How do you cope when a project doesn't pan out?

Jill Scott: This is life, and if something doesn't work out, then it wasn't meant to. I feel that there is a divine plan in all things. All I can do is the best I can do, and if it's well received, then, yeah. If not, I hope life will give me an opportunity to try again. Do I challenge myself? Absolutely. But beat myself up? I just can't do it.

Essence: Have you ever regretted folding to pressure from record labels?

Alicia Keys: In the beginning, I didn't understand the concept of boundaries. I wanted to make sure the music was heard, but there's a price you pay for that. I did everything and anything to promote my first album, like flying from New York to Los Angeles and back on the same day, which was a bit excessive.

Essence: Have you figured out the ingredients for the perfect song?

Mary: Yes, but I won't tell. [Laughs] For me, it's about being real and honest. And the lyrics have to be relatable.

Jill: Oh, I wish I knew. I think Ne-Yo knows. I think Carvin Haggins, who does a lot of writing for Musiq Soulchild, has the ingredients, too. My songs are mostly about life experiences, about being human and falling and getting back up. About loving and losing.

Essence: But aren't those the ingredients right there?

Alicia: It's always a bit of a mystery. A song should deal with a widely understood emotion, have a really strong, clear explanation of that emotion and a great melody that makes you want to sing it at the top of your lungs. Then the music should evoke the same feeling as the lyrics. Somewhere within all of that lies the perfect song.

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