Whatever criticisms have been directed at R&B superstar Mary J. Blige, particularly during the early part of her career, should by now be cast away like the old demons she’s famously exorcised from her own life over the years.
The diva put on a show Friday in Chicagoland that should quiet those detractors who claimed she couldn’t sing live or that she’s lost it since her peak period of the 1990s and ‘00s.
The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul entertained thousands of fans at the outdoor Pavilion and lawn concert venue at Ravinia Park (near Chicago) on Friday, July 20, 2018, with a 90-minute performance that included 25 songs interspersed with some real tough monologue about her life’s trials, tribulations and eventual triumphs… without naming any names or providing specifics, of course. Mary J. Blige is and has always been a private person who prefers to deliver her story through songs and through general advice to others.
And she did just that in a show she mostly dedicated to the fans who’ve been with her since the days of What’s the 411 (released in 1992). MJB breezed through hit after hit, with songs that were played impeccably well by her backing band (which included a very special family member of yours truly) and sang even better by Blige.
Initially donning a red, white and blue ensemble that featured blue denim short-shorts, a white top and a red leather jacket reminiscent of the style another famous MJ wore in famous ‘80s music videos, Blige opened with “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” from What’s the 411, followed quickly by a medley of big hits including “Enough Cryin,” “I Can Love You,” “You Bring Me Joy,” and the R&B classics “Real Love,” “Be Happy” plus famous remixes of “You Remind Me” (her début hit) and “Love No Limit.”
Before twenty minutes had expired, Blige was already ten songs deep into her set with the karaoke-inspired audience having yet to take its seats. It wasn’t until the eleventh tune, “Don’t Mind” from her album, My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), that things finally calmed down from their frenzied, energetic start.
That album, My Life II…The Journey Continues, was billed upon its release as the “sequel” to her bestselling 1994 My Life album, itself critically hailed as one of the best of her career and one that reflected a darker period in Blige’s life. Contrarily, My Life II, released in 2011, displayed her growth, both personally and professionally, and the joy that comes with finding the strength to overcome life’s hardest problems.
With that in mind, Blige took a moment to address the audience with some love lessons she learned from “personal experience.” Mostly targeting the fellas in attendance, her main messages were: 1) it’s tough to hold on to a “strong” woman, 2) remember that woman doesn’t need you, she wants you (“your queen CHOSE you”), and 3) to keep her, there can be only one queen in a man’s life, not two or more.
Oh, and don’t go comparing your woman to another one of your female acquaintances. “There is only one Mary J. Blige up in this b____,” she exclaimed.
Moments later, as she concluded the set’s first half with the song “Everything,” featuring a heavy dose of the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” and A Taste of Honey’s “Sukiyaki,” she revealed that she would never again refer to another human being as her “everything” because that gives them too much power, perhaps a reflection on her recently ended marriage. Instead, she now reserves that honor for the fans that have been with her through thick and thin.
These were relationship words to live by and ones that resonated with the audience of mostly women whose lives MJB’s music has always touched. Blige’s ability to connect with women who themselves have experienced pain and heartbreak in relationships has always been her biggest selling point, primarily because of her ability to keep it real with lyrics that have been shaped by events in the singer’s love life over the years.
But if MJB’s life has been through the emotional ringer, you wouldn’t know it from watching her at Ravinia. Now 47 and looking (and moving) like a woman half her age, the very much in-shape Blige seems to be improving with time like vintage wine. Her live singing voice is in top form – something that ironically cannot be said of many of her former contemporaries, including several other divas (living or dead) to whom Blige was often unfavorably compared in the past.
And that dance – the signature lower-those-shoulders, sway-those-arms and bop-that-head back and forth move that MJB does so well? Yep, she gave us that and much more, prompting the audience to cheer her on as the Yonkers, NY singer busted several moves at various points throughout the show.
After a break midway through the set (during which each of Blige’s backup singers and band members got to shine with solo turns), the star returned after a costume change – this time wearing a body-hugging black cat suit with quilted front, shear side panels and an oversized black fedora with the word “ICONIC” prominently (and appropriately) displayed on the back.
Blige opened the show’s second half with the title song to the My Life album, but with a twist that made the singer even more worthy of props from critics of her penchant for sampled music.
When “My Life’s” familiar sample of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” began, the audience was shown a video of the older song’s vinyl album spinning on a turntable. As Roy Ayers’ song continued, the camera zoomed in on the album’s label to let any unenlightened fans know exactly where the MJB song came from. With the original artist and song title clearly in view, her band took it from there and Blige reappeared with her own interpolation of “My Life.”
It was the kind of homage that was missing back in the sample-heavy 1990s when Blige’s first producer – and the biggest song sampler of them all, Sean “Puffy” Combs, was doing it. But the tribute to Ayers was now like a beacon of light – a coming-of-age for the multiple Grammy-winning, two-time Oscar-nominated Blige, who has evolved into the consummate professional – one who recognizes true music and respects its originators.
Blige famously covered another ‘70s artist, the funk band Rose Royce, whose 1977 hit “I’m Going Down” she remade in a dead-on rendition 17 years later. It was a true crowd pleaser on this night and the second of four consecutive songs from My Life that she performed in a segment dedicated to fans of the album.
Afterwards, she delved into more of her post-My Life hits, including the very underrated “U + Me (Love Lessons),” the Waiting To Exhale classic “Not Gon’ Cry” and the soul-soothing “No More Drama,” the latter of which she took to full crescendo as the crowd chanted the song’s refrain “No. More. DRAMA!” before Blige collapsed to the floor – in dramatic fashion, I might add – reflecting either her pure exasperation with drama or her penchant for crowd-pleasing theatrics.
Whatever the motive, Blige received a long standing O for her spirited performance of that 2001 hit, which concluded that segment of the show.
For the encore, MJB performed her new 2018 track, “Only Love,” with its empowering lyrics and funky retro-disco beat (a complete sample of the 1977 disco classic “Doctor Love” by First Choice), followed by the equally empowering (and my personal favorite) “Just Fine” from her stellar 2007 album Growing Pains, and finally her biggest pop crossover hit, “Family Affair” – a song that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks in 2001 – before Blige said goodnight for good.
As the throngs of fans made their way to the exits, the jury decision was nearly unanimous: Mary J. Blige was still at the top of her game with a knockout performance they wouldn’t soon forget.
It was an instantly gratifying reminder that she still is and will always be the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul!
The Mary J. Blige Set List for Ravinia Park, July 20, 2018:
- Changes I’ve Been Going Through
- Enough Cryin’
- I Can Love You
- The One
- You Bring Me Joy
- Reminisce (snippet)
- Real Love
- You Remind Me (remix)
- Be Happy
- Love No Limit (remix)
- Don’t Mind
- Share My World
- My Life
- I’m Going Down
- I Never Wanna Live Without You
- You Gotta Believe
- Love Don’t Live Here Anymore (snippet)
- U + Me (Love Lesson)
- Thick of It
- Not Gon’ Cry
- No More Drama
- (Encore) Only Love
- Just Fine
- Family Affair
Glaring omission: “Be Without You,” the biggest R&B hit of her career and one that Billboard recently named the biggest R&B/Hip-Hop song of all time, having spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 2005/6.
Perhaps the song’s lyrics of unquestioned love for one’s partner didn’t fit into Blige’s narrative for this night.