See also: Our Mary J. Blige slideshow
Mary J. Blige
American Express Unstaged's livestream music series at Club Nokia
Better than ... eating ice cream after a breakup.
Dressed in an aquamarine silk shirt, black leggings, lace-up knee-high boots and a fedora, Mary J. Blige belted the final chorus of a song from her upcoming album, the clumsily titled My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1), "Mr. Wrong": "Me and Mr. Wrong get along so good, even though he breaks my heart so bad." It was the second act of her show, and she grinned. "Tonight is the night we celebrate how strong we are," she said.
As any Mary J. fan recognized, the scene was loaded with significance. Much of the album she had just finished covering, 1994's My Life, was inspired by Blige's tumultuous relationship with her own Mr. Wrong, K-Ci of Jodeci.
But that was 17 years ago, and she's since also kicked the drug and alcohol addictions that contributed to My Life's stormy atmosphere. Mary J. Blige sounds best when she's channeling her heartache into songs, supplicating either the Lord or her lover, and I was excited she decided to cover this old classic. But I wondered: Now so removed from the emotional turmoil that influenced the work, would she be able to pull off a successful rendition?
Yes and no. While at first the smallish Club Nokia seemed a conservative choice for a diva that could easily pack a bigger venue, Blige's show wasn't swallowed up by the space, and it re-enforced my belief that R&B singers should chose cozier spots over coliseums. Plenty of people think Blige has a tendency to scream instead of sing. Yet she was remarkably restrained through most of the songs on My Life, skatting a little here and there and letting the audience sing much of "I'm Goin' Down."
However, restrained is not what many fans want from Mary J. Blige. It was a relief, then, to hear a touch of ragged pleading enter her voice during "Mary's Joint." Suddenly, you felt, not just heard, the lyrics, and the song seemed to have affected her, too. She looked out into the crowd. "I was in tears singing that part."
A dam had burst, and she finished My Life by bending down onto a knee as if at an altar call during "Don't Go" and dancing through "Be Happy." In the balcony, J. Lo reportedly threw herself into it, as well.
Obviously, she's grateful the My Life days are behind her. When she re-emerged to do a few songs from My Life II (she was joined by Nas during the first, "Feel Inside"), it seemed as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Dancers were onstage for each song, Blige grooving so much she glistened with sweat. And as the band teased out the end of "Family Affair," she leapt into the air.
Personal bias: The song "My Life" has gotten me through some mighty dark days.
The crowd: Date night for folks who were in college when My Life was released. Guys in pressed button-downs dancing with ladies in painted-on jeans and sparkly tops.
Overheard in the crowd: "She got some boots - but you know who got some boots? My girl Alicia Keys!" "And Lisa Raye."
Set list below.
Mary Jane (All Night Long)
You Bring Me Joy
I'm the Only Woman
You Gotta Believe
I Never Wanna Live Without You
I'm Goin' Down
Be With You
I Love You
No One Else
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Be Without You