That’s how Blige has built a relationship with her audience, which is overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly in her corner. Her journey is theirs.
Blige preached to the converted time and again Friday night at the KFC Yum! Center, turning commiseration into an art form while never failing to balance the tears with a banging club track. It was a lackluster turnout of less than 10,000, but Blige performed as if it were a full house.
Blige, 42, is at that sweet spot in her career where she’s still putting out good records but has a catalog that goes back to 1992’s groundbreaking “What’s the 411?” That affords her all the power of nostalgia without becoming a full-blown oldies act.
Blige did several songs from “What’s the 411?,” which expertly blended traditional and modern R&B with hip-hop, and was generous with hits from her peak years such as “You Bring Me Joy,” “My Life,” “Sweet Thing” and “I’m Goin’ Down.”
But 2011’s “Mr. Wrong” was also a highlight, and even some of Blige’s biggest songs were clearly improved by the added emotion and nuance provided by experience; “Not Gon’ Cry,” for example, was elevated into a powerhouse that far exceeded the 1996 single and earned an extended ovation.
Blige brought three opening acts, with Kem getting the biggest spotlight. He’s a soul/R&B singer from the old school, but is more big city than southern fried. Like Blige, he’s all about empowering women but not above teasing them with a little leg.
But Kem’s thoughtful, sensitive, wholly mature music is often pretty while being far too static. He has strong arrangements and melodies but is shy of memorable hooks, a problem made plain when he did a quick medley of songs from the 1970s.
Musical comedian J. Lamont did a manic 15 minutes that included some impressive beatboxing and impersonations, mostly of vintage soul singers. Bridget Kelly’s brief set showed off a powerful voice, but singing to prerecorded backing tapes robbed her performance of dynamics and energy. Still, her “Special Delivery” was a classic throwback to the Chi-Lites.