Mary J Blige review – R&B queen bares her soul in storm of wrath and tears

Kew Gardens, London
Performing amid a messy divorce, Mary J Blige delivers a hugely emotional set, her voice both racked and silky as she rebukes men for their wrongdoing

‘I hate this part of the show. I’m sad, I’m mad, I don’t get it,” says Mary J Blige, not unreasonably. We have reached the segment of her set where her soon-to-be-ex-husband gets the full firestorm. Every verse of Set Me Free fillets him – “When you had another bitch and taking trips and shit with my money for so long” – but she goes a step further, improvising a coda that has her bent double over the mic, spitting whatever comes into her head: “That ain’t fair, that ain’t fair – I gotta bust my ass every day!” Coming straight after a gothically dark cover of Rose Royce’s I’m Going Down, it leaves Blige, face obscured by a broad-brimmed hat, drenched in sweat and wrath.

You could say that the hip-hop/soul star has settled into a predictable groove of emotional hardship followed by prolonged recovery and a vow that she’ll never be a victim again – and admittedly her current album, Strength of a Woman, goes through the same cycle. But that reckons without her ability to turn same-old-same-old into a mesmerising and relatable 90 minutes on stage. This is why people have paid £50 per ticket (or more, if they’ve opted for “premium”, which includes a genteel Kew picnic hamper): Blige in the flesh, her voice racked and silky by turns, is almost incomparable.

Beyoncé covered similar territory on her album Lemonade, but would never allow herself to crumble during a gig, whereas Blige messily cries it out night after night. That’s not to imply weakness. She is stronger as a result of her trials, she tells us, and leads into Don’t Mind with an emphatic address to male fans: “I have nothing but love and respect for you, fellas, but the first thing is, you can only have one queen. One queen!” As she astutely observes, she and the fans, both male and female, have been a mutual support network since her agenda-setting 1992 debut, What’s the 411; when she rebukes the men there’s a more-in-sorrow fondness to it.

That album’s hit single, Real Love, is a highlight despite being tucked away in a 17-minute, nine-song opening medley. A satiny My Life is better still, evoking the 90s R&B sound that Blige did much to influence. Bloodied but unbowed, she’s still here to tell the tale.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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