Prince was an event when he played Essence Festival on Friday night, but Mary J. Blige is the face of the fest.
The hip-hop R&B singer is “a figure of inspiration, transformation and empowerment,” according to the Essence website, and when she performed Saturday night, her connection with the audience was immediate.
Prince was a consummate, enigmatic entertainer when he opened Essence, but many in the audience identified with Blige, and her stories were their stories.
The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul — as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs dubbed Blige — has appeared in appropriately glamorous finery in previous years, but on Saturday she showed up ready for tennis in white shorts, a sleeveless, white V-necked blouse, white socks and white sneakers.
Her demeanor was sunny as well, as she bounced through a speeded-up take on the ballad “Enough Cryin’,” so much so that the song could have been mistaken for a summer love anthem if it didn’t kiss off a cheating lover — sadly on record, merrily in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The party vibe of the first half hour was more sympathetic with her celebration of empowerment, “Just Fine,” in which she sings, “I won’t change my life, my life’s just fine.”
During the opening suite of songs, Blige brought out a pair of male dancers to join her for choreographed sequences, which the audience charitably encouraged with chants of “Go Mary, Go Mary.”
Because Blige has made her emotional life her art, those in the Superdome were happy to see her in an uncharacteristically carefree mood and watched her moves with kind eyes.
Eventually though, her set adopted more familiar contours, as did the wardrobe.
When Blige gave up dancing, she switched to boots, then a glamorous form-fitting gray blouse, shorts, a broad-brimmed hat and knee-high boots.
Songs about strength gave way to the stories of how and why she developed it.
“How many of you want to be accepted for who you are?” she asked, to introduce “Take Me as I Am,” and as is the case in many of her songs, the question told listeners all they needed to know about the tumultuous emotional world in which Blige lives.
Blige’s musical greatness comes in her emotional eloquence when extemporaneously exploring a musical and lyrical phrase.
Other singers’ flights of vocalese are admirable and musically challenging, but when Blige broke down and worked out the phrase “Not worth the tears” during “Not Gon’ Cry,” her pain and rage were as complex as they were unmistakable. You could hear her anger at him, at herself, at the tears she cried even though he’s not worth them, as well as her fear that the next relationship will end up just as badly.
Her entire inner monologue was unmistakably audible as she sang doubled over, almost convulsing. The moment was clearly cathartic for many women in the audience, who sang along, gesticulating, hearing their stories in Blige’s story and communally working out their pain as she worked out hers. Blige acknowledged that connection when she said, at the end of “My Life”: “Just like yours.”
The evening’s only hiccup came when she decided she’d had enough of the controller on her hip for her in-ear monitors. She fussed with it as discreetly as possible for a song or two before declaring, “This is working my last good nerve.”
A technician came out to work on it midsong, but after she let the audience sing all but the last verse and chorus of Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” — another abject anthem, which she covered on “My Life” — Blige charged offstage without a word. The band fell silent with nothing planned, so mics onstage picked up a little of her animated backstage conversation — not words or phrases, but a tone and cadence that no one would want aimed at him.
Blige puts the “power” in “empowerment,” and all the songs of struggle and misery have a component of fight and strength, even if the person she’s beating up is herself.
The kiss-off song “The Suitcase” from the new soundtrack to “Think Like a Man Too” seemed lightweight in the context of the second half of her set, but it reflected another form of strength — composure — as she relived the moment of zipping up the suitcase and walking out the door, denying him a chance to explain.
Once worked up, Blige is nothing if not passionate. She’s fashion-conscious, but not so much that she lets it limit her.
By the end of “No More Drama,” she was doubled over and hopping in six-inch heels as she sang “No more pain/No drama/No one’s going to make me hurt again” like an incantation or a prayer, as if singing it often enough and passionately enough would make it true.
Because we can see where she is today, Blige’s show felt triumphant. Her musical story is that she’s a survivor, and onstage the stakes were clear.
She’s understood, she’s loved and she clearly has helped many in the audience deal with their dramas. She’s capable of having fun, and she’s headlining Essence.
The drama in Blige’s show was real, but so was the reward.
Alex Rawls writes about music in New Orleans. He can be reached at MySpiltMilk.com.