All hail Mary J. Blige, the queen of Essence Fest

July 5, 2010

If nothing else, 2010 will go down as the year Mary J. Blige once and for all asserted herself as the undisputed queen of Essence Fest. In advance of her Sunday performance, I wrote that the festival’s producers correctly assigned her the second-to-last slot on the bill, rather than the closing slot. But if the goal was to hold the crowd as long as possible, lift them up and keep them there, Blige should have shut it down.

I have witnessed a half-dozen of her performances over the years, but Sunday’s was by far the best I’ve seen. It was focused, cohesive and smartly paced. Blige bore down, but didn’t lose herself in vocal hysterics. She said the right things the right way. She aligned herself squarely with the women in the audience, but in way that didn’t exclude the fellas.

She was gracious when thanking her fans, but didn’t pander. She revealed fresh material, including the winning “Feel Good,” but did not neglect such standards as “I Am” and “No More Drama.” And as far as she’s come from the old life that inspired the latter, she can still tap that wellspring of emotion.

Trey Songz and T.I. made guest appearances, but they were simply icing on the cake. Blige carried the show on her tattooed arms, thighs and shoulders. At one point, a chant of “Go, Mary! Go, Mary!” swept through the loge section like The Wave. “Just Fine” rocked. So, too, “Family Affair,” which inspired Mayor Mitch Landrieu to dance down front.

In the set’s most remarkable moment, Blige supplied the “oh, oh, oh” accents of “I’m Goin’ Down,” but turned over the verses and choruses to a mass choir of female voices, thousands strong. “Let me say that the Mary J. Blige fans are in the building!” she exclaimed.

Anyone who wasn’t before, should be now.


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