We’re not worthy, Mary!
On a night when the annual black cultural fest known as the BET Awards seemed as if it were devolving into a sunken place that no one or nothing could possibly pull it out of, up steps the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to save the day.
After two hours of uneven performances where the good was outweighed by the bad, it seemed that this year’s show was going down as one of the franchise’s forgettable ones.
The good? New singer H.E.R. sang “Lord Is Coming” and fellow newcomer Lizzo had the crowd on its feet after blazing through her “Truth Hurts.” Cardi B and Offset killed it on “Clout” and “Press.” Fantasia returned from the ashes and kicked some ass on “Enough.” And the first of two Nissan Stage performers, newcomer Lucky Daye (“Roll Some Mo”), showed the promise of R&B’s future – well, at least what viewers got to see before he – like the night’s other Nissan Stage performer Kiana Ledé – was abruptly cutoff, rendering them mere lead-ins to commercial breaks.
The not-so-good? Too many indiscernible raps by too many hip-hop acts, including the two babies (Lil Baby, DaBaby); flubbed vocals during the go-go music opening (E.U.’s Sugar Bear was a whole set of bars ahead of the music on “Da Butt”); one too many half-hearted attempts at lip-syncing (yes, Cardi B we saw you); slow delivery of jokes that mostly fell flat (dry host Regina Hall); and the annual foot race with the censors to see how many 4-letter words performers and presenters could squeeze past them (my guess is there were far more than in previous years).
But then the tribute that many of us old enough to appreciate happened – the one to this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner: Mary J. Blige.
After a very respectful homage paid by superstar Rihanna, plus a video vignette of tributes featuring fellow legends Queen Latifah, former Uptown Records (Mary’s first label) president Andre Harrell, and industry mogul, mentor and lifelong friend Sean “Puffy” Combs, MJB took the stage.
Mary thanked practically everyone she’s ever come into contact with during her nearly 30-year career (and before), including her mother, who was present, plus two men in her life with whom she has renewed relationships, her father (not present) and Combs.
She then exited the stage while “Family Affair” played in the background, only to re-emerge after a costume change to a taped intro by Combs as the performance of the night kicked off.
Simply put, MJB killed it!
Mary – dressed in an all-white ensemble that complimented her long, blonde weave (which she acknowledged earlier as big hair for a big night) – launched into a 20-minute medley of some of her biggest hits, including these classics: “My Life,” “No More Drama,” “I’m Going Down, “Real Love (remix)” “Reminisce (remix),” “You Remind Me (remix),” “Be Happy,” “Love No Limit,” “I Can Love You,” “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By,” and “Just Fine.”
For those wondering, that set doesn’t even include her three biggest chart hits: “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Family Affair” and “Be Without You.”
On “I Can Love You,” a surprise appearance by Lil Kim reminded folks why she was once considered the Queen of Rap. For a minute or so, it was easy to forget all the drama (and botched surgeries) the ‘90s rapper has endured and just focus on her ability to spit bars.
On “I’ll Be There For You,” duet partner and surprise guest Method Man emerged from the top of a platform looking like he’d been drinking from the fountain of youth the past quarter century since the song was a hit. During both performances, Mary was content to serve as curator while Meth and Kim did their thing, and we didn’t mind at all.
Both guest performances were nostalgic reminders of just how many people MJB has collaborated with over the years, with the whole set reminding the amped audience just how vast her music catalog is.
Most of that audience was on its feet during the entire performance, with many singing along to Mary’ hits and dancing in the aisles.
The 48-year-old Bronx legend still has some sly dance moves, too. Her famous Mary dance hasn’t lost a step, and it prompted at least one collective chant of “Go Mary! Go Mary!” as the honored singer worked her famous moves and breezed through hits like “Love No Limit.” The self-assured expression on her face as she swayed and strutted through that one in particular let everyone know “I got this!”
And then just like that, after she sang a personal fave “Just Fine,” the tribute was over.
Mary had come full circle from being the reluctant 21-year-old we used to see at awards shows in the early ‘90s. She had lived through good times and tough times – as her music has so aptly tracked throughout her career.
On this stage, she was truly the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul that everyone had anointed her as being even before she deserved it. Except she’s now deserved that crown for a long time – and BET finally recognized.
Suddenly, the rest of BET’s night didn’t seem so bad after all.
Legendary filmmaker Tyler Perry – love him or hate him – gave a stellar speech honoring black women that showed why he was deserving of the night’s Ultimate Icon Award. Gospel king Kirk Franklin blessed the stage with a rousing performance. And the late rapper and humanitarian Nipsy Hussle was given a tribute that included a thought-provoking, if not slightly rambling speech by his grieving mother (we got the point though).
In the end, this year’s show will likely be remembered by some as being one for the ages. The network will certainly bask in its glow for weeks with the traditional after-party and numerous re-airings as BET continues the celebration long after the ceremonies at L.A.’s Staples Center ended.
And while BET will sing the praises of all its performers and presenters, credit Mary for turning around a show that – at best – was average before she took the stage with her amazing concert performance.
Yep, it was a straight-up concert, one that should help sell out tickets for her ongoing (and fantastic) tour, by the way.
On Sunday night, she proved that she is indeed a better live performer than most credit her for being. She’s also “a leader, a queen, and a living legend,” as her speech so humbly acknowledged.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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