As the Queen of Hip-hop Soul, Mary J. Blige has gathered some powerful friends in the music business. Her list of collaborators reads like a who's who of rap, hip hop and R&B: Puff Daddy, Notorious BIG, Busta Rhymes (who reportedly discovered her), Method Man, Faith Evans, Baby Face, et al.
Her latest record, Share My World, is the "aria" for this young, yet accomplished singer, a diva in her own right. The only link it has to her previous work is its ability to sell platinum in little or no time.
Thus, as her triumphant return to the New York City stage on April 4, 1998 was to be shared by thousands, fans were surprised to learn that she had been sidestepped to the minuscule Theater at Madison Square Garden by the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Not to be outdone by lions and tigers and bears, Blige brought her arena-size show into the tiny theater but refused to scale it down an inch. With some help from opening act, Usher, who has no lack of star power in his own right, Mary delivered the kind of dazzling show that no three-ring circus could ever muster.
With a New Year's Eve type countdown, Usher Raymond made his entrance flanked by four male dancers, all clad in snazzy designer suits. As they took their spots on the small dance floor, the crowd roared with an ovation that was truly deafening.
Usher opened with "My Way," the title track from his latest CD, and for his hour set, enraptured the audience with raw talent and baby-faced good looks. His seductive style -- a velvet voice coupled with moves to kill -- was hobbled by the limited stage space. Nevertheless, Usher made great use of the center staircase, scaling it to and fro, and perching on the top triumphantly before disappearing for each of the show's three costume changes.
On songs like "You Make Me Wanna," "Come Back" and "Bedtime," from the new LP, Usher and dancers covered every soul and hip-hop dance move in the book, while Usher predictably shedded every piece of his stylish clothes. Soon he asked the crowd, "Should I take my pants off?" (What do you think they answered.)
As you can imagine, the tiny stage proved to be a challenge for Mary J. Blige as well. Nevertheless, Blige made a grand entrance, striding confidently through a center-stage door, clad in a stunning silver gown. With a giant backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge glowing behind her, Mary opened with her signature tune, "Real Love" cranked at full volume, as the crowd rose to its feet in appreciation.
While the tunes "Real Love" and "What's the 411" may have hearkened back to her early days bedecked in jerseys and backwards baseball caps, tonight she appeared as the mature and accomplished diva. Blige has had her share of ups and downs in her illustrious career, but she now carries herself with confidence and dignity, making the show a testament to her resilience and true artistry.
Blige's set contained a good mix of her three albums, Whats the 411, My Life and Share My World, all of which poignantly document the tumult of her personal and professional lives. There were no guest appearances from any of the artists who have performed with her over the years, but Blige and her voice alone were stunning enough. Gems like "Seven Days," "I Can Love You" and "Everything" particularly stood out, displaying the freshness they contain on record. Different backdrops and costume changes kept the show moving, including a segment in which she donned the jersey and backwards cap of old.
Mary's performance included dancers, a top-notch backing band, and fireworks, but she alone outshined them all with her stunning and soulful voice. If she has overcome adversity, she hasn't lost a touch of her talent along the way.
Usher and Blige, the king and queen of hip-hop soul held their court tonight, given the cirucmstances, and were not outdone by any circus that happened to be passing through town.