Blige's `Breakthrough' comes from the heart

Music Review


There were thunderous bursts of sparks, shooting flames and five costume changes - all grand trappings of a professional stage show befitting a superstar. But somehow Mary J. Blige, the unchallenged queen of hip-hop soul, brought it all down to earth. Her glam-but-street summer tour, the "Breakthrough Experience," stopped at 1st Mariner Arena on Wednesday night. This time out, Blige is on a musical mission to uplift sisters with songs whose titles sound like mandates: "No More Drama," "Enough Cryin," "Be Happy."

The two-hour show felt like secular church: full of impassioned singing, joyous dancing and testimonies about old demons and new revelations.

"I'm a little messed up, too," Blige told the near-capacity crowd of mostly black women. "But I'm getting there. I'm getting better."

Her well-publicized troubles with drug and alcohol abuse and toxic relationships lie behind her. The Yonkers, N.Y., native is happily married these days, thank you very much. And the music on her latest album, the double-platinum The Breakthrough, celebrates this newfound sense of emotional and spiritual security.

After rote performances by opening acts LeToya and Jaheim, spoken-word artist Black Ice preceded Blige's two-hour show with a blistering, expletive-laced poem about the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It was a peculiar, angry start to Blige's loose, mostly uplifting show.

Afterward, the moody, scowling singer of the '90s, who often hid behind large shades, emerged on a tabletop-like platform wearing a wide-brimmed hat and an ivory pantsuit reminiscent of Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones. The shades were gone, and Blige's smile rivaled the stage lights. She opened with "MJB Da MVP," a boastful (and pointless) track from the new album. Then she slid into her first big hits, "Real Love" and "Reminisce," both from her widely acclaimed, if often stiff, 1992 debut, What's the 411? Backed by a powerful five-piece band and three tight background singers, Blige revisited more early classics such as "You Bring Me Joy" and "Mary's Joint."

In the past, the singer-songwriter tended to sing flat, and still her pitch occasionally can be painfully off. But during Wednesday night's show, Blige was in strong voice, delivering such empowering sista-girl anthems as "Good Woman Down" and "Take Me As I Am" with conviction to spare. She sang hard throughout, sweat shining on her neck and down her chest.

One of the most affecting moments in her set was during "Father in You," a deep soul ballad from the new album. She wrote the song to her husband, record producer Kendu Isaacs, about growing up without her dad. The tune was illustrated with a background video of a little girl staring sad-eyed at the camera while her parents fight behind her.

Blige pulled mostly from The Breakthrough and 1994's My Life, a modern soul classic rippling with wrenching vocals and open-wound lyrics.

That album featured Blige's hit remake of Rose Royce's 1976 bluesy slow jam, "I'm Going Down." As the band launched into the sweeping first notes, the packed house immediately took over the song. So Blige surrendered, held her mike to the crowd and grinned.

The tearful, missing-my-man number with such lyrics as "the sound of the rain/against my window pane/is slowly, slowly driving me insane" seems like an unlikely singlalong. But Wednesday night, it somehow felt like a song of transcendental joy. A breakthrough indeed.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.