Mary J. Fights The Drama, Outkast Fight For Attention On Grammy Stage

Other performers included 'NSYNC with Nelly, U2, Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan.

Performances at the 44th annual Grammy Awards ended like they started, with words of praise for the man up above. But in between the rejoicing from acts like Outkast, dancing diva Alicia Keys and the stripteasing girls of “Lady Marmalade,” there were many somber sets, highlighted by Mary J. Blige’s emotional plea to end exactly what she brought — drama.

(Click for photos from the show.)

One of 2001′s big winners and 2002′s odds-on favorites, U2, capitalized on their momentum right from the gate Wednesday night (February 27). In between winning two awards, they opened the ceremony with their Record of the Year-winning “Walk On.”

Bono, standing at the mic with his trademark Brown Hornet-like shades (the singer’s were purple), started the cut with a subtle roar before beginning his gentle crooning.

“If your glass heart should crack,” he sang, “be strong.”

The group stayed relatively laid-back for most of the song, until it neared the end and Bono and the Edge moved to the tip of the stage, where backup singers stood on the floor beneath them. “Halle, halle, hallelujah,” they sang.

Next up were the ladies of “Lady Marmalade” — Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim — who’d performed their “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack hit only a handful of times before. Aguilera, whose Shirley Temple curls caused a slight Marilyn Monroe resemblance, promised a big surprise when she spoke to the press during the Grammy pre-show.

Guess she wasn’t aware it had already been announced that Patti LaBelle would be performing with the collective — the soul diva’s first time singing at a Grammy ceremony.

Each of the women seemed to be trying to look more outrageous than the others in their lady-of-the-evening attire, strutting and singing on a set similar to the one in their music video. One of the track’s producers, Missy Elliott, made an eye-blink cameo onstage, exiting as soon as LaBelle appeared.

La Belle made her time to shine count, ending with some of her classic wailing, which consumed the auditorium and garnered a standing ovation from her peers.

The tide shifted from crass to class with the next act, Train, performing “Drops of Jupiter.” The crew wore basic black as lead singer Patrick Monahan sang with an orchestra backing him.

The collaborations picked up again with the pairing of Alejandro Sanz and Destiny’s Child for “Quisiera Ser.” Although most of the song was sung in Spanish, it wasn’t about the lyrics — the performance was all about the vibe.

Sanz started off playing guitar and singing to the made-for-grinding beat. His stage set opened to reveal the sexy trio in sultry, revealing black threads. The trio harmonized as they walked over to the crooning Casanova, bringing a smile to his face. Caught up, he took the guitar off to dance with the girls.

Destiny’s Child’s popularity carried over to another performance. Nelly, who took the stage with ‘NYSNC to debut the remix of their “Girlfriend,” rhymed about needing a “Fiancee as cute as Beyoncé” on his second verse.

The song started off with the pop princes all wearing headset microphones, sitting on stools and singing a piece of “Gone.” As their dancers came on and the beat changed to “Girlfriend,” the guys disappeared, only to rise up on car-shaped platforms. The onstage block party wasn’t unlike the goings on in the cut’s video, except for the fact that Nelly was there making an argument for a lady’s affections as he and his St. Lunatics bounced around (“OK, baby, what does it take for you to be a lady?” he rhymed).

Keys didn’t need any assistance on the mic, commencing her set with the Song of the Year, “Fallin’.” With the rising star sitting at a piano featuring a clear top, you could see the chords anxiously raise as her fingers pounced on the keys.

A recorded voice alerting everyone that this was the remix boomed out of the speakers as 10 dancers stormed the stage and Keys rose from her bench for “A Woman’s Worth.” This year’s Grammy winner for Best New Artist showed she has more than a heart-stopping voice in her repertoire — she can shake a leg too. Dancer Joaquín Cortés tangled with Keys for a foot-stomping tango.

The Dave Matthews Band was more somber with “The Space Between.” The audience lights were dimmed while Matthews and company played under spotlights.

Bob Dylan, no stranger to the spotlight himself, made a return to the Grammy stage with “Cry a While.” The legendary vocalist last displayed his raspy baritone at the ceremony in 1997. Looking like Wild West outlaws, he and his posse performed in an opened cube made of screens that showed their silhouettes. But when you’re Bob Dylan, you can perform in a cardboard box and still get a standing ovation. Needless to say, people rose when he finished.

If it wasn’t for the announcement of presenters for the Song of the Year Grammy, the crowd in the Staples Center would still be on its feet saluting Blige, who started with subtle passion before erupting with overwhelming fervor on “No More Drama.”

Television screens behind her showed the song’s video and displayed messages of hope like “Have Faith,” but they went virtually unnoticed. M.J.B. was not only the performance’s focal point, but she was the show’s highlight up to that moment.

“It’s up to us whether we win or lose,” she spouted with fire, “and I choose to win.” As the song reached the home stretch, Mary continued with ad-libs as if she’d been holding in years of frustration, singing, “I need a peace of mind.”

As the track ended, she looked exhausted, like she was about to cry, but she summoned her strength and kept it together.

With Destiny’s Child and their devastating good looks, the “Lady Marmalade” collection of honeys and the perennially hot Eve all in attendance, leave it to Oukast’s Dre to be the evening’s biggest eye candy. He and his partner, Big Boi, created a spectacle during their performance of the Grammy-winning “Ms. Jackson.”

The only thing that kept people’s peepers from staying fixated on the white wig that flowed past his shoulders was his all-hot-pink outfit that included a satin shirt. On any other night, Big Boi’s flossing in a pimp-daddy, money-green suit might have stood out as well, but with a DJ spinning records in a church robe, a playground for a set, more than a dozen kids running around (one came to the front to pop-lock), and about 15 women walking through the audience shaking tambourines, it was hard to know where to look.

Nelly Furtado and India.Arie kept the action to a minimum during their performances, focusing on showcasing their vocals via mellow deliveries of “I’m Like a Bird” and “Video,” respectively. Furtado, whose chops may have been overshadowed by her song’s spry feel, used Steve Vai’s electric guitar for an almost balladlike rendition of her tune. Multiple-nominee Arie stood amid a mix of flowers and tapestries, simply letting her soulful sounds gush.

Al Green, Brian McKnight, Arie and Hezekiah Walker all made sure spirits would be high when everybody exited. They closed the show by collaborating on a gospel medley that included the solo offerings “Precious Lord” and “I Feel Good” as well as the group effort “Lord Lift Me Up.”

For a list of Grammy winners, click here.

For more Grammy news, check out the MTV News Grammy Archive .