If there's one easy way to sum up Mary J. Blige, it's that she emanates class. That was obvious from the moment she got onstage at the Fox Theater, clad in thigh-high stiletto boots and a white cat suit that made her look like a superhero. Now forty years old and two decades into her career, Blige appears to only be gaining momentum.
She descended on Oakland Friday both to reprise her 1994 album, My Life, and to preview cuts from the forthcoming sequel, My Life II ... The Journey Continues. (The sequel actually occurs in two acts, the first of which will hit stores next week.) Seventeen years, seven studio albums, and several high-profile but abortive romances passed in the interim, and Blige held her post as the reigning queen of R&B. While she doesn't have the megastar status of a Beyoncé, she does have something equally hard to attain in the pop world: longevity. Much of it owes to her knack for mixing R&B bathos with stylish hip-hop production.
The show at the Fox proved as much. When DJ Sake-1 took the stage around 8 p.m. to spin a set of old-school Frankie Beverly and Heavy D, the majority female crowd was already packed in shoulder to shoulder. Some folks were dressed to the nines in cleavage-bearing gowns and stilettos; others wore fitted jeans and scarves. Most held up their cell phones like votive candles. When Blige emerged around 9 p.m., with three backup singers and a five-piece band in tow, the crowd exploded. Blige didn't waste time with pleasantries. Rather, she launched right into "Mary Jane," a song that's largely filched from the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long." Blige's version is leaner and a little more tender — as much about ironing out difficulties in a relationship as it is about seduction. She pointed her microphone to the audience and let everyone sing along on the second verse.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent while watching Blige live in concert is that she's as much a hip-hop artist as an R&B singer. Perhaps that explains why her work has had such wide appeal. Blige is a former project chick, she was one of the first R&B queens to trade verses with rappers, and she tends to work with loops and samples rather than through-composed melodies. As a result, her music seems hard, slick, and modern at the same time that it's besotted and sentimental. It also doesn't lend itself to a live band. For much of the time, Blige's rhythm section was burdened with repurposing album tracks, down to the looped basslines and bedrock 4/4 drumbeats. The band sat out "Mary's Joint" entirely, relying instead on a pre-recorded track. It turns out that highly expressive vocals over flat, canned music are central to the singer's aesthetic.
Granted, that hybridized style caused technical difficulties at the Fox, namely because the theater's sound system isn't flexible enough to accommodate both a live band and a prerecorded soundtrack. If anything, it favored the latter. The acoustics at the venue are rumbly and bass-heavy; sound condenses and reverberates so much on the dance floor that it often pitches people forward. It was clear at several points that Blige's band members couldn't hear themselves — her backup singers went a hair flat on "Be With You," and the other musicians pressed fingertips to their ears, as though to guard against background noise. A few extra sound monitors might have fixed the problem, but it could also be an unfortunate side-effect of trying to navigate two worlds.
But it's also likely that Blige's fans weren't looking for sonic perfection, given that album reprisal tours are about nostalgia more than anything else. Blige didn't seem completely perfunctory — she danced around the stage, ad-libbed on the vamps, gave each of her band members a chance to solo, and sometimes addressed the crowd directly: "It just messes me up, these songs," she said before cueing up the first horn riff on her hugely tormented ballad "I'm Going Down."
All of Blige's lyrics are about falling in love and being jilted — or, occasionally, falling in love and being narcotized. She's one of the few singers in the world who can talk about pain in stark, simple terms, and sound completely sincere. That has to do with both the primal quality of her voice and the details of her biography. (Blige was molested at age five; her father left the family home when she was still in elementary school.) She has always won fans by balancing pain and toughness with fragility, which is pretty much what My Life is all about.
Much has been made of a recent tone-shift in Blige's work, which came to light in the 2007 album Growing Pains. It was cut a few years after her marriage to record executive Martin Kendu Isaacs, and the lead single, "Just Fine," is a rather disarming display of joie de vivre. Judging from the My Life II previews she performed last Friday, it looks like the next album will continue in a similar vein. Blige's current radio hit, "25/8" is about being feverishly in love. It has the hip-hop horn samples, but is a slight departure from the material that made her famous.
Fans ate it up, anyway. That bodes well for the November 21 release.