When: Thu., Aug. 10, 7:30 p.m. 2017
The opening track of Mary J. Blige's 1992 debut record, What's the 411?—recorded when the burgeoning R&B singer was all of twenty-one—consists of an unhurried beat, a winsome synth line, and a series of heavy industry hitters ranging from Puff Daddy to Biggie Smalls calling to bend the knee, beg her attention, and otherwise lavish her with the sort of adoration befitting ascendant royalty. Blige never bothers picking up the phone on "Leave a Message." As befits a queen, she'll engage with her subjects when the mood suits her.
So it has largely gone for the Bronx-born prodigy, a brilliant songwriter and vocalist whose run of classic albums throughout the nineties and early aughts provided a bridge between the beguiling Quiet Storm confections of Anita Baker and Chaka Khan and the harder-edged, hip-hop-infused emotional, full-court press of Destiny's Child. What's the 411? placed the spotlight on Blige's voice and uncanny acumen for choosing great material, prematurely situating her in the estimable lineage of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra as vocal interpreters capable of making a merely good song into a legendary event. On her second proper album, 1994's My Life, Blige turned inward, demonstrating her own songwriting chops on a profoundly confessional record that addressed her personal demons in a no-holds-barred emotional bloodletting.
From there, Blige continued to release a flurry of excellent material, ranging from the gauzy, Fugees-like neo-soul of 1997's Share My World to the 2001 classic No More Drama, with its indelible, Sly-quoting ode to ice-in-the-veins cool, "Family Affair." As her legend grew, so did her public profile. Blige ratified her effervescent star power through a successful acting career in roles ranging from an early stint on The Jamie Foxx Show to a memorable turn in the gleefully demented 2012 Hollywood musical Rock Star.
As she coasts into the quarter-century mark of her storied career, Blige has lost nothing of her singular talent or her hold on a mass audience. This year's tough-minded Strength of a Woman was her most focused and ferocious work in years, resulting in a No. 3 Billboard showing and a raft of glowing critical appreciation. With her capacity to shed musical skins and remain steps ahead of the zeitgeist, there is no telling what she might accomplish in the future. Her subjects await. —Elizabeth Bracy