December 3, 2016
Mary J. Blige isn't afraid to tell you that she is in the thick of it.
Before she appeared onstage Saturday evening, animated screens aired out the dirty laundry of the multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning Queen of Hip Hop Soul. A lawsuit over a canceled concert. Her impending divorce from her 12-year marriage. The demand for more than $100,000 in spousal support each month. Blige knew that her personal tribulations have overshadowed her music lately. Instead of hiding, she got right out in front of it, emerging beyond the headlines in an explosion of onstage fireworks.
The King and Queen of Hearts Tour, which brought together Blige and fellow '90s R&B singer Maxwell, was structured with the classic trappings of a nostalgia tour. Her first handful of songs dipped back deep into her most popular musical moments, like the smash hit "Real Love" from the 1992 album What's the 411? or "You Bring Me Joy" from the critically acclaimed My Life. Even the on-screen graphics harkened back to the '90s, with bold, three-dimensional fonts and awkward color contrasts reminiscent of Windows 95 clip art. This was what the crowd — predominantly middle-aged and African American — came for: a chance to relive the music of their own personal heydays.
But that wasn't all the crowd was going to get. The show moved on, and the emotional weight of Blige's divorce began to seep into the performance. After a wrenching rendition of "I Can Love You," Blige paused the concert to speak to the men of the audience. "It's so hard for a strong woman to fall in love with you, and to say those words to you, so we're going to expect some things from you," Blige said. "We need to be your only queen. Respect the queen." Blige's insinuations of infidelity bled into the next song. As she belted out the painful refrain of "but I trusted you," feckless philanderers squirmed in their seats. Mary was putting them all on notice.
The stage soon became an altar on which Blige attempted an exorcism of her pain. Singing "Take Me As I Am," through proud verses and blistering choruses, Blige recalled lyrics that were ten years old, but still spoke to her life today:
She's been down and out
She's been wrote about
She's been talked about, constantly
She's been up and down
She's been pushed around
But for every time Blige consoled us, telling us that she was going to get back up and be just fine, that "she likes Mary right now," she lurched back into the music of ulcerated heartache. Her repertoire is no stranger to such feelings, and songs like "Not Gon' Cry" and "No More Drama" became vehicles to drive her private grief out in public. "I want to say this for the record, I just hate this part of my life," Blige admitted, her voice cracking in the shadows of the stage lights.
Blige unleashed the full heaviness of her heart during the performance of her latest single, "Thick of It." She's described the song as "so personal it's almost painful to let out," and the rendition was indeed an act of open suffering. Blige leaned on the mike, crying into it, her voice often stretching and falling out of key. She mourned her chorus, throwing herself into the lines "I gave you too much/enough is enough" with desperation. The cameras caught glimpses of her face glistening under a blue suede fedora; it was hard to tell if that was sweat or tears.
Earlier in the year, many critics praised Beyoncé for her courageous confrontation of marital betrayal in her dazzling album Lemonade and its accompanying tour. But compared to this show, there was something too perfect, too choreographed about the Formation World Tour's exploration of heartbreak. Beyoncé might have shown us an epic, polished opus of her pain, but Blige was willing to show us the unflinching reality of hers. Heartbreak is not artistic and refined. It is stumbling, lost and crumbled; it is a hollowed-out ghost town that you find inside yourself when love is gone. It is singing in front of 18,000 people and still feeling completely alone.
Blige is not afraid to confront the messiness of her loss onstage. She's not afraid to stray into audience-directed rambles, to lie prostrate in front of thousands at the bottom of her emotional pit, or to find herself back at square one again with embarrassing headlines to prove it. Simply put, she's not afraid. Her audacity in the face of so many personal setbacks and her ability to distill those trials into music are what's kept her from drifting into adult contemporary obscurity. That tenacity, which is so undeniably "Mary," makes her music more than the sum of its standard R&B parts. This mettle is sure to carry her through her divorce, but it's also sure to produce some more of the fantastic, honest music Blige is known for.