Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z share a night of hustle and flow

April 28, 2008


The idea is obvious: Bring together the top talents in hip-hop and R&B for one triumphant arena tour that raises the bar for the concert experience in both genres. Even better if you can pair one artist who really speaks to the ladies with another who all the fellas emulate.

This isn't a new idea: Hip-hop giant Jay-Z and R&B lothario R. Kelly teamed up for the Best of Both Worlds Tour before it crashed to a halt in the fall of 2004. But that aborted collaboration was stilted, forced and joyless -- in short, a disaster.

In dramatic contrast, the Heart of the City Tour by Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige -- the most successful rapper of all time and the queen of hip-hop/soul -- was a triumphant celebration when it rolled into the United Center Saturday for the first of a two-night stand.

Friends who first collaborated in the studio early their careers in the mid-'90s, the co-headliners opened the 2 1/2-hour show together when they mounted an elaborate stage in front of a big video screen and an even bigger band complete with strings and horns to duet on "Can't Knock the Hustle."

A few tunes later, Jay-Z injected a few lines into "Real Love," but the next 80 minutes were otherwise a solo showcase for Blige. "Thank you, Chicago," the diva said early on. "I brought you some joy. Can I make you happy?"

As that indicates, this was a much more upbeat Mary J. than we witnessed on many of her earlier excursions, when she often seemed to compare battle scars with her devoted fans as everyone sought and found catharsis in her emotional explosions.

Now that she's content and in love, on this night it was a powerful cover of "Sweet Thing" by Rufus and Chaka Khan that set the tone. An overwrought "Your Child" fell flat, but otherwise, whether she was detouring into a bit of delicate jazz scatting or burning through ferocious versions of "Feel Like a Woman" and "No Drama," Blige's flame-thrower vocals and indomitable personality were a marvel.

Just as strong was the former Shawn Corey Carter, a.k.a. Jigga, also known as Hova, riding high on the success of "American Gangster," a new Madonna- and U2-like mega-deal with Live Nation and, oh yeah, that recent wedding to Beyonce.

All that aside, the most impressive thing about Jay-Z's half of the night was that he showed the same energy and conveyed much the same intensity to the arena crowd that he did to the much more intimate gathering at the House of Blues last November.

With his signature rapid-fire and seemingly effortless flow, the New York superstar tore through a satisfying chunk of his sizable catalog, including the horn-driven "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is ...)," the crowd-pleasing "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" and the anthemic "99 Problems." And of course, Blige rejoined the proceedings a few times to keep the circle unbroken, as on a memorable "Song Cry."

But perhaps the most resonant part of Hova's set was his atypical detour into electoral politics, a nightly occurrence on this tour that was all the more effective because of where he was.

First, Jay performed "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," a song that's a favorite of a certain Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois, judging by his mimicking of the rapper's trademark brush-off-your-shoulder gesture in response to mud slung by Sen. Hillary Clinton. Then, after "Public Service Announcement" segued into a moving montage of images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the performer encouraged the crowd to boo a video image of President Bush.

"Chi-town, are you ready for change, y'all?" Jay boomed. Finally, the screen flashed a photo of hometown hero Sen. Barack Obama.

The answer to the rapper's question was a resounding cheer in the affirmative as raucous as any generated by a concert that lived up to every bit of its megawatt star power.