NEW YORK — If Muhammad Ali had been at Madison Square Garden Monday night, no doubt he would've found something to pound like a drum as he yelled, "The champ is here! The champ is here!"
That's exactly the aura Beyoncé gave off as she began her closing set of the Verizon Ladies First Tour, which also features Alicia Keys, Missy Elliott and Tamia.
B, seated in a carriage, took the stage to the accompaniment of tribal drums, waving to the crowd like a queen as loyal servants carried her to the front of the Garden. Finally at her destination, she stood on a platform at the front of the stage and began her first number, "Baby Boy."
That performance, along with most of her show, looked like a 3-D music video: Dancers joined in on smaller, circular platforms while fire shot from the floor and a long, rectangular screen merged video of flames with images of the performers, seemingly setting them on fire.
"Do I have any naughty girls in the house tonight?," B asked, setting up her next record and current single. "Do the A-Town stomp!" her DJ yelled as the singer worked the stage with her dancers.
Beyoncé then took it back to the days when Vanity was the hottest chick in the game, briefly singing snippets of Vanity 6's classic "Nasty Girl." But the platinum princess quickly changed her tune — literally and figuratively — as she stopped to tell the audience a relationship horror story. She pulled a pair of red panties out of her purse, saying that the drawers were not hers but those of her cheating boyfriend's mistress, before the music segued into "Me, Myself and I."
"Me, myself and I," she sang before holding out the mic for a response, which was soon answered with "is all I got in the end" by the 20,000-plus onlooking.
"I wanna hear everybody from front to back!" she commanded. "I wrote this song for each and every one of y'all!"
After snippets of some of her greatest hits — including "Jumpin' Jumpin'," "Independent Women" and " '03 Bonnie and Clyde" — Beyoncé unleashed a song she wrote just for certain people: The haters.
"Now that you are out of my life, I'm so much better," she began to boast against the violins that provide the soundscape for "Survivor." "You thought that I'd be weak without ya/ But I'm stronger/ You thought that I'd be broke without ya/ But I'm richer."
She was soon joined by her fellow Destiny's Children, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, who loaned their voices to the mix.
Now, just in case you're not sure how this movie will end, we'll go ahead and put you at ease now: Beyoncé continued to pull out the stops for her Big Apple throwdown. She stepped in the name of love during the breakdown of "Summertime." She had New Yorkers cheering like the Yankees had just won the World Series when she perfectly hit the high note toward the end of "Dangerously in Love." And the dimepiece continued to show that she has more juice than the inside of a coconut when Outkast's Big Boi sashayed down her onstage staircase for his verse on "Hip Hop Star."
And although the crowd roared when Jay-Z came out for "Crazy in Love," we can't really say it was a surprise. Jigga miss a chance to rep for his girl in his hometown? Not very likely. After the song ended, Beyoncé exited by sitting on a swing and soaring to the roof while the curtain closed.
Alicia Keys, who took the stage before Beyoncé, made a memorable entrance as well. Rather than sitting at the piano as you might expect, she was standing center-stage, ready to dance. Fittingly, she started with "Heartburn," shaking her body like Ike-era Tina Turner, causing a sudden rise in blood pressure among the men in the audience. The sex appeal was being poured all over Madison Square like milk on Cheerios.
"Since I am home, let me see you get your asses out your seats!" yelled the Manhattan native as she kept dancing.
Keys' accompanying band played as though it were possessed by James Brown's band, delivering rich, crisp sounds, and coming across even better than on wax. Alicia wasn't too shabby herself. This was no one-faceted pop tart getting onstage and lip-synching. It was soul music so powerful you could feel a tingle in your neck; a voice so heartfelt you wanna slap your momma; the closest this generation will ever get to seeing Aretha Franklin in her prime.
"Tell me something: How many real women are in the building tonight?" she asked before the opening chords of "A Woman's Worth." Keys, now seated at the piano, sped up the tempo of the song up musically and vocally, giving it a Latin tinge. Two dancers appeared and Alicia later joined in.
Later, she stood center-stage again, moving her body like a snake (R. Kelly would have been proud), then climbing atop the piano. A red light shined on her as she lay across the instrument and alluringly sang, "Slow down ... I'll be yours if you'd be mine/ We don't have to rush tonight."
She then leaned over and started playing the chords from "Diary." As Alicia sang, the video screen showed a piece of paper with words being written as soon as they came from her mouth.
The finale from the multitalented singer came via "You Don't Know My Name." Like she does every time she performs the record, Alicia broke out a cell phone and acted out the skit where she lays her mack down on the well-dressed man who frequents her place of business.
As always, Missy Elliott's set was a bundle of charisma and sound-bombing. Accompanied by dancers, a DJ and a hype man, she unleashed an arsenal of favorites like "Get Ur Freak On," "Pass That Dutch" and "Work It." Her stage show was more like a hip-hop sideshow as she wheeled out an assortment of stage antics, like running into the audience, having glow-in-the dark dancers crawl out of the wall and TV screens that look like a fish tank.
Meanwhile, if you blinked, you missed Tamia. Grant Hill's freckled bride hit the stage a little before the concert's 7 p.m. start time but managed to end her brief group of ditties on a high note by bringing out Fabolous for "So Into You."
The Ladies First Tour has just six more dates, ending in California on April 21. Missy, for one, is sorry to see it end. "It's sad," she said the day after the Garden show. "It's like a TV show that's been going on for years. You know, we've been having a lot of fun, and it seems we just started to get into it, and now it's about to end."
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.