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Mary J. Blige
FOR YEARS NOW, Mary J. Blige has worn the tag "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." And while it's become about as universally accepted as James Brown's well-worn moniker "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," it barely does her, or the market she works, justice. Might as well call her "Queen of Pop," right? After all, hip-hop soul is the pop music of the day. Just try finding a chart-bound R&B record without hip-hop cameos or beat-wise production, or a major hip hopper who isn't doing time in some R&B institution's studio.
It's easy to forget that this hasn't always been the case. Just a decade ago, resident hip-hop ideologue Chuck D. was dismissing R&B as "sex for profit" and the equally strident Ice-T was calling R&B radio programmers a "bunch of punk bourgeoisie black suckers." It could be that the simple passage of time has eliminated those differences. As post-'70s Superfly undertones fade from the hip-hop landscape almost entirely, B-boys and buppies are increasingly indistinguishable, and Mary is the demographic's Diva of Choice. But that doesn't take away from just how fresh she sounded when Real Love dropped in 1992. The "Around the Way Girl" materialized to introduce a new type of pop figure, the archetypical Puffy protégé: a diva singing tough and sweet over hit-ready samples.
Her new live record, The Tour--taken from various stops on the trek that supported her most recent release, Share My World--documents Blige in a transitional period. Still in her 20s, she's almost old-school now, her hip-hop soul hybrid having prepared the way for genius-inheritors like Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill. Consequently, she sounds experienced here, and, fully aware of this, she appropriately closes the record with a couple of ace covers that hammer home the depth of her maturity. Her take on Aretha's "Day Dreaming" is first rate, but the finale, a gospel-inflected version of Dorothy Moore's mid-'70s hit "Misty Blue," is a triumph. Southern-born and New York-raised, just like the modern black music she masters, Blige reaches for, and achieves, a soul-deep grittiness that divas big and small--from upstart Brandy to Queen Whitney--could never pull off.
Of course, Blige has always sounded old. Take "Not Gon' Cry," which has served as the emotional core of three different albums--the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack (an expert primer on the modern diva), Share My World (Mary's last studio joint), and, now, The Tour. Singing from the perspective of--no, becoming--a woman whose husband has left her after many years of sacrifice, Blige bears down on the line "Ele-ven years, out-of-my-life..." Eleven years ago Mary J. Blige was skipping gym class, but you don't doubt her for a second.
The Tour is pretty tasty as far as live records go, especially the last third, which sees her concentrate on material from Share My World and drop the aforementioned covers. But, for better or worse, there are plenty of the elements that try to give live records an oddly commemorative feel: overdone arrangements, hip-hop-style crowd prodding ("Put your arms in the air," "Say 'Do this motherfucker'"), and "impromptu" lyrical variations ("Do you miss Tupac tonight, y'all? Do you miss BIGGIE SMALLS! tonight, y'all?"). But what matters is that we don't miss Queen Whitney, and we damn near forget Brandy even exists.