Armed with a powerful, if not especially sturdy, voice, limited dance moves and just good enough rapping skills, Mary J. Blige still manages to step up and raise her game a notch above Mariah or Whitney. Lacking their flashiness and aerobicized glamour, her music has an emotional honesty and ferocity her more conventionally talented sisters can’t match. Blige has seemingly willed herself into divadom — you either agree with her or risk being steamrolled.
Onstage, this leads to certain intriguing contradictions. Blige makes the expected big entrance, sauntering down a central stairway as a stadium-sized Spectracolor screen echoes her every move, and the magazine covers she has graced are projected onto smaller screens on either side of the stage. But the opening song, “Deep Inside,” based on the piano riff from “Benny and the Jets,” asks the audience to look beyond the flash, because “she’s just plain old Mary.”
It’s a dichotomy Blige is well aware of. The evening’s songs vacillated between tales of pain and blunt advice that could be transcripts of conversations between girlfriends. Blige is the diva next door; for all the trappings of fame, she understands. Despite three costume changes (and two wigs), she repeatedly tells the crowd “it’s time to bring it down to earth.”
But Blige is a diva, and can muster up the wrath and self-pity that are a diva’s perquisites. When the tape of Aretha Franklin’s vocal for the duet with Blige on “Don’t Waste Your Time” was nearly inaudible, Blige stopped the song and threw a tantrum. The storm front passed and Blige continued with the last third of the show, including her biggest hits, “What’s the 411” and “You Remind Me.” But the clouds remained, and Blige returned to the stage following her encore to thank the crowd for their support, through good days and bad. This was one of her good days.