NEW YORK Mary J. Blige, queen of hip-hop soul and a b-girl at heart, proved Monday night she has a promising future as a minister if she decides to stop entertaining.
Not only did she bring back old-school dances and sermonize the crowd during the second of two sold-out nights at Radio City Music Hall on her No More Drama tour, but she also made the concert a family affair with her friends Jadakiss and Fabolous and her "brother," P. Diddy.
Watching M.J.B. perform, there's a sense of familiarity that can be found in few acts today. She's exposed so much of herself her downfalls and, more recently, her triumphs that fans know the story behind each song and feel as if she's singing to them. For those just jumping on Mary's bandwagon, she made sure they knew the story behind her music Monday night.
After surprising everybody by effortlessly spitting 16 bars of raps with the speed of an M16 during "Love" (which she came out to), she made the few still in their seats shake off their laziness with one of her catalog's big hits, "Mary's Joint." Then it was time for church.
"If you're sick and tired of everybody judging you and you just want some unconditional love, just listen," she said.
Going from one end of the stage to another with a bop that embodied a b-girl's swagger and pimp's stroll, Blige, clad in a sleeveless leather top and red leather pants, started "Love No Limit": "Baby, there's no need to tell ya/ As far as I can clearly recall; My love has been here for you/ So you don't have to wor-reee at all."
A snippet of the remix to "Real Love" followed, then Blige, who's celebrating a decade since she dropped her debut LP, took it back beyond 10 years to perform some old-school '80s jigs, including the Cabbage Patch, during the club version of "Reminisce."
That was just the beginning. While the crowd danced to "You Bring Me Joy," she proclaimed, "If you never celebrated life before, you gonna celebrate life tonight." She swayed her hips while standing at the mic singing "All That I Can Say" and invented a new step a hybrid of popping and the robot during the remix to "Deep Inside."
The crowd still rocked when she slowed down the pace for ballads.
For "I'm Going Down," the men and women in the audience sang along, creating an echo in the theater: "Time on my hands/ Since you been away, boy." It seemed as though every fan in Radio City was oblivious to the other thousands in attendance and thought they were singing a duet with their onstage heroine. "I ain't got no plans, no, no," Mary's faithful continued.
M.J.B., meanwhile, stayed focused. Every note seemed more impassioned than its predecessors, and her voice was rich throughout the night. It had to be; she had messages to get out.
"How about a little peroxide, a little alcohol," she added to "My Life" as the song almost ended. "It's gonna hurt, but we gotta get healed," she continued with the fervor of a fire-and-brimstone minister. "It never gets easier. ... We're getting ready to heal."
Blige talked almost as much she sang, but that was cool with the crowd. It was like hearing from an old friend who used to run wild who has now matured.
She warned all deadbeat dads on "Your Child," told the women to stop pining away for men who don't care about them on "The Love I Never Had" and pleaded with her sistas to get out of abusive relationships before "we go to the kitchen and get a knife."
She didn't even need to say a word to get the longest and loudest applause of the night. That started with the piano chords at the beginning of "No More Drama."
Sitting at a revolving piano, feigning to play, Mary, in all white, let it be known again that it was time to heal from the pain: "Broken heart again/ Another lesson learned/ Better know your friends/ Or else you will get burned."
Still, she had something special in store for her hometown crowd. With many of her fellow entertainers back from Philadelphia's NBA All-Star festivities (including Magic Johnson and Chris Tucker, who sat in the audience), you knew she had to bring out at least one guest. She is the queen of hip-hop soul, after all.
Wearing all white to match Mary's new-day motif, P. Diddy strutted to the stage while Mary sang the remix to her album's title track. "Been in the game for 10 years, it ain't easy," he rapped before he held Blige's hand and bounced with her.
Having talked about unity all night, Blige's fitting finale was the remix to "Family Affair," with Fabolous and fellow Yonkers native Jadakiss whose group, the LOX, was discovered by Mary joining M.J.B. onstage with their raps.
Read about all of the shows we've recently covered in Tour Reports.