A cynic could argue Wednesday's '90s pop Cerberus at Xcel Energy Center - Nelly, TLC, New Kids on the Block - was nothing more than a hollow Spotify playlist, three faded megastars joining forces for a Clinton-era karaoke party before their fanbases gravitate toward casinos. There might be grains of truth to that, but they're irrelevant.
Make what you will of the artistic merit of each act (only TLC shines in that area), and yeah, there's little in the way of career vitality. The only thing that truly mattered last night was the audience response. A packed house of mostly shrieking females weren't coming from a dishonest place and, from the looks of it, neither were the entertainers, each of whom yielded fan-forward sets designed for maximum nostalgic resonance. And goddamn, did they deliver - especially New Kids on the Block. If truth in art is the ideal, the emotional tidal wave that surged through the X made for an undeniable masterpiece.
First up was Nelly, perhaps the most accomplished pop-rapper of all time. Despite recent meth-bust troubles, he couldn't have looked better; the 40-year-old MC was crazy swol, with bulging muscles breathing easy outside of his sleeveless hoodie and, later, tank top. It was a reminder that Nelly once held LL-ish cachet with female fans.
Artistically, the St. Louis rapper never relied on a point of view or a personality (because, ya know). He's a hook-happy showman, and that's what shined at the X as he tore through hits with a hastened and sometimes yippy, shout-y flow. And let us not forget: The dude boasts a serious collection of hits (see set list below). The rare moments Nelly appeared onstage solo, he looked almost lonely. But that wasn't much of an issue, as his hype men - his brother that inspired the iconic under-eye Band-Aid among them - and twerking dancers flanked him for most of the night, one that featured audience singalongs (Kelly Rowland-featuring "Dilemma") and full-on freakouts ("Country Grammar").
Nelly, content being a pop star with little if any rap-game cred, even busted out choreographed dance moves with his crew for "Cruise," his recent - that's right, recent - hit with bro-country stars Florida Georgia Line. He lost the crowd a bit with arbitrary mini-covers of "Billy Jean" and Top 40 hits such as "Turn Down For What?" and Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck With You," but raked in applause as he thanked each section of the building individually.
See also: New Kids on the Block at Xcel [PHOTOS]
TLC, sporting gold lamé overalls, emerged from origami-like pods to thunderous applause and a video montage resembling a Windows 95 screensaver - wobbling condoms, sunglasses, lipstick. The R&B group, down to a duo following the death of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes in 2002 ("We're never, ever replacing Left Eye," we were promised), projected the 1990s the hardest with dated graphics, plenty of video callbacks and surplus nostalgizing.
From a vocal end, T-Boz performed spectacularly and did almost all the heavy-lifting on hits "Scrubs," "Creep," and "Unpretty," which was accompanied by a schmaltzy photo montage of all the women of the world. You better believe the audience still hates scrubs. Chilli - who at one point felt compelled to offer "I weigh 114 pounds, so not that much" - mostly danced and assisted on harmonies. One very excited male fan, plucked from among the seven in attendance, received a lap dance from Chilli; there was also a dance-off courtesy of the TLC dancers. A backdrop of glowing smartphone screens added to a poignant, radio-quality rendition of mega-hit "Waterfalls." "Can't you tell we love it up here?," asked Chilli. You really could, even if things felt a bit off without Left Eye.
The dancing and screaming crowd of young Gen-Xers and old millennials delivered intense energy for Nelly and TLC, but nothing could match the early-90s-authentic mania reserved for New Kids on the Block. Not even a video product-placement spot for Cottonelle toilet paper dampened enthusiasm, which swelled as a custom clip of Michael "Let's Get Ready To Rumble" Buffer introduced "the undisputed champions of the boy-band world." The place. went. nuts.
Confetti. Fireworks. Costume changes. Gratuitous ab exposure from Joey McIntyre (Donnie Wahlberg looked a little plump). Plenty of floor humping. It all drove a stadium full of adult women into a Tiger Beat frenzy. No one seemed to care NKOTB kept thanking "Minneapolis" throughout.
"It's like seeing an old boyfriend - it's really weird," said Jennifer Cameron of Robbinsdale when asked to sum up the energy.
While the theatrics were many (including borderline strip-show antics toward the end), the music didn't disappoint. The boys (45-year-old men) can still sing and dance. "Can't Stop the Whisper" was an anthemic, house-bumping joy; "Favorite Girl," sung by grown men to grown women, carried holdover emotional heft; "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" was an avalanche of feels. Remember Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations"? Donnie does, and he covered part of it. So much confetti.
Sure, NKOTB's ass-shaking rivaled the exploitiveness of Nelly's female dancers. And yeah, there was next-level emotional pandering. They have a falsetto-swooning song called "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)," which saw Jordan fall to his knees beneath a single spotlight and a shower of sparks, after all. This is a well-oiled, high-energy, emotionally believable machine. Extreme nostalgia porn maybe, but certainly some powerful pop-culture/psychological shit.
Donnie, charismatic as his brother, drank a beer. We cheered. Joey humped the floor. We swooned. "Do we have any cover girls in the building tonight?"
You better believe we do.
Critic's bias: TLC's CrazySexyCool was my first CD, but I quickly moved on to Hootie; Nelly is Nelly; I had almost zero cultural context for New Kids on the Block. I get it now.
Notes on the opener: Nelly's hype men presented him with a custom grill ahead of "Grills."
Overheard in the crowd: "This is kinda a white girl concert."
Nelly: E.I. / Whurr Da Party / Tailfeather / Batter Up / Airforce 1's / Country Grammer / Shhh Break It Down / Dillima / Just a Dream / Cruise / Ride Wit Me / Move Dat Body / Beat It / Grills / All I Do Is Win / 7/11 / I Don't Fuck With U / Blow the Whistle / Hot in Herre
TLC: Intor/Friends/Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg / TALK / Baby Baby Baby / Creep / Diggin on You / UnPretty / Red Light / No Scrubs / Meant 2 Be / WaterfallsNew Kids on the Block: Block Party / Crash / Favorite Girl / Right Stuff / Whisper / Let's Try It Again / We Own Tonight / Didn't I Blow Your Mind / Valentine Girl / If You Go Away / Plesae Don't Go Girl / Remix / (mini piano covers) / Baby I Believe In You (Jordan solo) / Give It To You (Jordan solo) / Sweet Dream (Joe solo) / Twisted (Joe solo / I Need You (Donnie solo) / Cover Girl (Donnie solo) / Games / Step By Step / I'll Be Loving You Forever / Hangin' Tough
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