NEW YORK — Sean "Diddy" Combs was just a scrappy intern-turned-A&R wunderkind in 1992 when he crossed paths with Uptown Records' most recent signing: a girl from the Schlobohm Houses in Yonkers, New York, who wore her hat real low and had a distinguishing scar. It turned out blond ambition was alive in the 'hood.
Back then, Diddy was still Puffy, and R&B divas were draped in beads, not bubble jackets. But Mary J. Blige upended that archetype with the release that year of her genre-creating hip-hop/soul debut, What's the 411? Her "ghetto gospel" — as rapper Game called it — approach to making music cleared the way for upstart artists like Jazmine Sullivan. On Monday night, the headlining Queen of Hip-Hop Soul kicked off a two-night stand at Radio City Music Hall with Sullivan bowing first.
Mary launched into her Music Saved My Life Tour set with the blazing Game collabo "Hate It or Love It." She sang her verses (even spit!), before ticking off the black-girl-lost anthems that have become universal hymns: "You Bring Me Joy," "Reminisce," "Mary Jane," "Sweet Thing" ... there was barely a moment for transitions between the songs. But Mary was just getting started, pouring her heart into classic remix renditions of "Real Love" and "You Remind Me," songs born in an era when mixtapes were still recorded on cassettes and New York bootleggers hocked their goods at barber shops, not on blankets.
The hometown girl sang, "I know that you still savor for my flavor, baby," with a backdrop of the Empire State imbuing the moment with layers of meaning.
By the time MJB was stomping her way through the insistent "Be Happy," the building seemed to be shaking. Her band provided thunderous accompaniment, while her backup vocalists effortlessly filled out the bottoms of the songs.
"She's been up and down, she's been pushed around/ But they held her down, NYC," Mary sang during a rendition of her Breakthrough album smash "Take Me as I Am." She reduced her band to a trio for the number, creating an unforgettable, near-acoustic version. "Put my life all up in these songs/ Just so you can feel me, so you can get the real me."
Walking her signature Mary Jane strut — part East Coast MC, part Pentecostal churchgoer catching the spirit — 39-year-old Blige, older and wiser, dispensed the kinds of affirmations you have to earn the right to pass along. She patted her "big old" rear, pointed out a hint of upper-arm wobble and laughed that she was perfect anyway, and so were we.
A spine-tingling "No More Drama," "Just Fine," "Family Affair" and "Breakthrough" served as the rocking concert closers, bringing the long-standing crowd to shouts. Unlike other acts whose longevity tilts toward some shining, early point in their catalog, Mary's still in the kitchen cooking up hits, so her live show has a sense of urgency, immediacy. Down to a white tank and curve-hugging black pants, the songstress pulled her hat down over one eye with a knowing smile and what sounded like a thousand thank-you's.
Many have sought it and failed, but Sullivan has earned the ultimate R&B co-sign from the iconic MJB. The statuesque Philly singer was clad in the de facto R&B starlet uniform of piqued-shoulder bodysuit. Blessed with massive, smoky pipes, she held her own on the current radio staple "Holding You Down (Goin' in Circles)," which samples Blige's "Be Happy," and performed her first batch of hits, "Lions, Tigers & Bears" and "Need You Bad." Doubters should be forewarned: Jaz is gunning hard for the title of heiress apparent.
The generation-spanning concert also featured a grown-folks set by singer El DeBarge, whose songbook is the stuff of FM "quiet storm" blocs and who is waging a comeback. His falsetto was in good shape and, shod in "Oz"-inspired red patent-leather oxfords, he showed off some fancy footwork. Meanwhile, show opener Miguel sang an extended version of his infectious "All I Want Is You." When he stopped by the 1515 offices a few weeks ago, the Cali native with an affinity for Bowie, said he wanted to push the boundaries of R&B. He seemed well on his way.