It’s difficult to find two artists who shaped the course of hip-hop-era R&B more than Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo, and it’s just as tough to find two artists whose careers have diverged more widely since doing so. D’Angelo followed up his magnificent, Grammy-winning sophomore album “Voodoo” with a full decade out of the public eye, while Blige has been diligently wracking up hit records and awards at a steady clip since 1992. Uniting the erratic absentee genius with the doggedly consistent diva, the “Liberation” tour made for an exciting and combustible pairing.
Gigging in support of last year’s “My Life II…,” Blige’s 90-minute set at L.A.’s Gibson Amphitheater was a vintage display of the singer’s blend of professional sheen and confessional purgation — there aren’t many stars who can comparably convey aching vulnerability while strutting the stage in designer sunglasses and thigh-high leather boots. Though she went through all the wardrobe changes and crowd-baiting indulgences that come with R&B divadom, Blige was most impressive when she dropped the pomp and glamour to embrace the messy emotions of her best material.
The difference, for example, between Blige and her endless succession of wannabes that have graced R&B charts and “American Idol” tryouts over the past decade, was made abundantly clear during the churning mid-set climax of “Not Gon’ Cry.” Rather than punctuate the song with a pristine, glass-cracking glory note, Blige instead unleashed a series of primal, guttural howls that she delivered doubled-over with her hand clutching her midsection, as though painfully wrenching the notes from deep in her belly. Rarely is the distinction between virtuosity and soul more obvious.
As expected, Blige’s gifts were showcased most strongly during the set’s ballad-heavy middle section, which alternated between-song motivational speeches with lung-busters like “Good Woman Down” and “No More Drama.” If one could lodge a complaint, it was that the show never achieved maximum propulsion toward the end, with Blige having exhausted all her blue-chip crowdpleasers (“Real Love,” “Enough Cryin,” “Family Affair”) during the first third of the set, though the crowd displayed unflagging enthusiasm.
Earlier in the night, D’Angelo made an entrance that was half prizefighter and half Gospel preacher — a dichotomy he would maintain through his hour-long set — descending through the aisles from the back of the theater, doling out hugs and handshakes while his 10-piece band vamped on Motherlode’s “When I Die.” Strapping on a bedazzled guitar, he charged into an intensely funky opening flurry, moving from “Left and Right” to a radically reworked “Brown Sugar” before taking off into orbit with an extended jam on “Chicken Grease” that quoted the Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” as it worked its way to the sort of frenzied, screaming climax that James Brown would usually save for the end of a show.
Unsheathing such weaponry three songs in felt risky, though D’Angelo seemed content to ignore all the usual set-list dynamics, and rarely suffered for it. The Virginia native’s voice has lost nothing since his heyday, and his continued confidence as a performer was evident in the long tease he executed while performing “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” alone at the piano, or the way he slowed the grinding groove of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” down until it almost dissipated into the ether.
When, midway through his performance, D’Angelo offhandedly mentioned he would be playing some tunes “from the new album,” the crowd confusion was palpable. After all, this is a man who has only cut two albums in two decades, whose hiatuses last longer than most R&B singers’ careers. The first of the new tracks — a boilerplate ballad still in search of a personality — struck the set’s only humdrum note, but the uptempo rave-up “Sugar Daddy” was more than ready for prime time, closing out the set with no less than three false endings, an appropriate gesture for an artist poised to return from obscurity for a second time.