Mary J. Blige is nothing if not complex. It would take a roomful of shrinks to unravel the knotty contradictions that made her Wednesday night show at the Nokia Theater so endlessly fascinating.
For starters, she had the blustery confidence to start the concert with four songs from her upcoming album, “Growing Pains” (due Dec. 18 on Geffen). But she explained that the music is born of her insecurity. (One has to wonder what it would take to make her feel secure: Before she takes the stage, a video in which a small battalion of superstars and music-industry veterans –including Wycelf Jean, Elton John, L.A. Reid and label execs Ron Fair and Jimmy Iovine — sing her praises is shown; the words “greatest soul singer” are heard more than once. The video’s immediately followed by a recording of Blige confessing, “I know why people hate me…”
The rest of the 100-minute perf was equally bipolar. Like the new album, it combined don’t-stop optimism with blunt psychodrama, and slick production values with unvarnished vulnerability. Hectoring hip-hop complaints rubbed shoulders with big R&B love ballads, passionate demands for intimacy (“Come to Me”) locked horns with equally passionate demands for space (“Hurt Again”), and songs in which she berates herself for rushing to judgment (the self-abnegating “Fade Away”) confronted songs of rash accusations (“Shake Down”). And it all came to a dramatic head during (of course) “No More Drama,” in which she broke down while advising her avid aud (who sang along to just about every song) to ignore those who “are angry at you because you are happy, or don’t want you to have a job when you have a job.”
For Blige, all this is growth –she is, as one song explained, a “work in progress.” She is also one hell of a singer, which keeps her show from becoming a staged case study.