Mary J. Blige is the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, undisputed. In the course of her explosive show at Shea’s Performing Arts Center Friday night, she proved why. Blige wears her crown with poise, grit and stamina. She is most definitely music royalty.
But first, a princess in her own right: Lalah Hathaway, channeling the husky-voiced spirit of Anita Baker and the tenderness of her father, soul master Donny. Classic R&B doesn’t get more sultry than this. A snippet of Baker’s “Rapture” was too tempting. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Love’s Holiday” showcased her six-piece band’s keen musicianship.
"Change Your Life,” a track from an upcoming release, is a worthy update of the genre’s aging (but gracefully) keyboard-heavy sound. “Surrender,” a Pharrell-written track from the “Hidden Figures” soundtrack, sounded too much like the songwriter for it to do Hathaway any service.
Regardless, she delivered like a pro, in pink sneakers, and with great humor and hospitality between songs. What a gracious performer, providing a true warm-up for the vocal fire that was to come.
And then Blige lit the stage on fire. There is no “almost” with Blige, no halfway, no potential; there is here and now, 1,000 percent or nothing at all.
Her set opened with a sobering “Love Yourself” from her latest album, “Strength of a Woman.” If you’re following her personal life — which, for the purposes of a concert review, shall remain irrelevant — you know that earlier this year, Blige announced her divorce from her husband of 12 years. The best songs in her 25-year career have dealt with disappointment, and in her royal way, she resurrects like a phoenix. Blige may appear cool and secure behind those sunglasses, but inside she is a volcano.
On the outside, too. Agile and fit as ever at 47, she came to play. And clad in gold sequins, sparkling baggy gold pants and a sporty white tank top, she plays hard.
Unexpected was her choreographic agility. Blige performs without backup dancers — and she doesn’t need them.
After rolling through a string of floor-thumping bangers, Blige handed the mic to her rapturous audience for her huge 1992 hit “Real Love.” Like her biggest hits, this is is now timeless and classic. No one would think of it as being a quarter-century old.
Her eight-piece band rode Blige’s train through a string of medleys that never really stopped. She acted as their bandleader with support and adoration.
But her best leadership came in her intimate conversation about the real strengths of an independent woman. Here she sang her loudest notes of the night, and implored her fans to learn her lessons: that nothing can stop a self-made woman, especially not a disrespectful man. In the same breath, she expressed gratitude for all the correct men in the room. Everyone gets lifted up in Mary’s house.
This mentorship will be Blige’s legacy, but her musical influence runs deep. Tracks from her legendary 1990s albums “What’s the 411?” “My Life” and “Share My World” brought enormous applause. The 1990s are now a nostalgia act, and it feels good to revisit these songs that feel so close and so far away.
“I’m Going Down” channeled this nostalgia like a gigantic group hug. Blige may not have sung most of the song — she gives up her mic often — but she was nonetheless present.
Her second act took things to a more soulful place, bringing us back to where Hathaway began the night. “Set Me Free” recounted with anger and rhetorical curiosity how (presumably; allegedly; apparently) her estranged husband could redistribute her money to his indiscretionary fund. A brief, deep cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” was the succinct answer.
Here we grasped the depths of Blige’s sermonizing philosophy. This is the way a woman in charge handles these situations. Like a pro. Like a lady. Like a queen.
Mary J. Blige
Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center