By Tyler Bunzey
September 23, 2022
Before any performer took the stage in the Spectrum Center on Wednesday night, fans eager to see the queen of hip-hop soul put on a show of their own. In anticipation of Mary J. Blige’s tour, fans swayed to DJ SNS’s lively pre-show set with their sharpest looks on display. Concertgoers were dressed to the nines in a wide array of flavors, from pastel suits to club chic micro-mini dresses to designer jeans and oversized T-shirts. They belted out classics like Keisha Cole’s “Let It Go” and a remix of Beyonce’s “Love on Top” with a loving familiarity. The crowd filled the arena with a prickling energy that would be sustained in the night’s celebration of R&B, both old and new.
Queen Naija, a rising Detroit R&B singer, began the night with a brief but dynamic performance. Naija transposed Mary J’s hip-hop soul spirit in tracks that feature prominent ‘90s hip-hop samples like “Pack Lite” (Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady”). In “Lie to Me,” Naija paid direct homage to Blige’s 1997 cover of DeBarge’s “A Dream,” which is also the main sample in 2Pac’s “I Ain’t Mad Atcha.” The younger members of the crowd rose to their feet for her opening set and even those seated appeared to deeply enjoy it. However, Naija’s performance exceeded mere hip-hop nostalgia with an updated sound, and her set featured more than just a collection of songs to warm up the crowd. She put on a show, complete with background dancers, walkout music, a live band and sensual, psychedelic visuals.
Ella Mai in Charlotte “Trip” ✨🎶 pic.twitter.com/8npem4L48A
— CLTure® ( culture ) (@CLTure) September 22, 2022
If Queen Naija set the bar high, UK R&B singer-songwriter Ella Mai rose to the challenge. Crowds swayed and sang along as Mai crooned in a lavender body suit matching her oversized satin sports coat and purple velour mid-calf boots. If Queen Naija modernized a ‘90s sound, Ella Mai showcased classic R&B glamour. “R&B is very much alive,” she declared midway through her set. And indeed, Mai exuded vivacity as she performed hits like 2018’s “Trip” and her breakout Grammy-winning hit “Boo’d Up.”
In short, the openers dazzled. But however bright their performances shone, they certainly didn’t eclipse hip-hop soul’s light of self-love, Mary J. Blige. The Spectrum Center was roaring when Blige marched onto the stage to her DJ Khaled-produced hit “Amazing” to a backdrop of flames jetting up from the stage. Her performance was as dynamic, and she didn’t show much of her 51 years as she danced to the crowd’s chants of “Go Ma-ry,” displaying that classic b-girl energy she’s carried since her debut in 1992.
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Blige’s most remarkable performance quality, however, was her ability to control the crowd. R&B or not, she is a true emcee. On classics like “Real Love” and “Family Affair,” she let the crowd do most of the work. At times, Blige hardly sung at all, simply reveling in the crowd’s perfectly synchronized recitation of her catalog. While sometimes this kind of dynamic can fall flat and seem like the performer is getting out of the performance itself, it was Blige’s prescient relationship with her audience that allowed her to predict when to sing, and when to let her fervent fans take over.
This kind of community is built out of Blige’s catalog, which explores themes of self-love, agency, and positivity especially in romantic relationships. When Blige performed tracks like “Good Morning Gorgeous” and “Rent Money,” it was clear that her healing after her traumatic divorce to former manager Kendu Isaacs spoke to an experience common among some women in the audience. Tears spilled after a gospel-inflected performance of “Not Gon’Cry,” but Blige is more than a conduit for communal pain. She symbolizes the rise from abandonment and loneliness. “I said I wasn’t going to cry,” she sang in a brief coda. “But I’m crying for joy. I’m crying ‘cause I’m free. I’m crying ‘cause it’s over.”