Mary J. Blige has little left to prove as a musician. In a career spanning nearly 25 years, the soul songstress has won nine Grammys, and four of her albums debuted at no. 1; eleven of her LPs have reached either gold or platinum status. But an outsider wouldn’t have known that from Blige’s set at the Beacon Theater in New York City Thursday night, which followed the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of The London Sessions, a documentary about the 44-year-old singer’s 2014 album of the same name.
Instead, the night hinged on vulnerability and repentance. Blige has been open about her past struggles with addiction and substance abuse, and made it a sort of personal mission to talk to fans through her music and her words about self-esteem, spirituality, and overcoming adversity. She’s certainly earned a coronation, but she doesn’t seem to see it that way. She paused between each of the nine songs of the night’s performance to reassure the crowd of her recovery. And despite her apologetic demeanor, the audience’s reverence was evident in the constant sea of raised smartphone cameras and the genuine laughter that greeted jokes in the documentary that honestly didn’t seem that funny.
Her set continually emphasized the message of the Sessions documentary—one of rebirth and self-discovery. Pop music is, in many ways, about how effectively a star chooses her collaborators, and when Blige traveled to England to record her 12th release she was looking for more than the fish and chips she lauds during one of the doc’s lighter moments. While there, she immersed herself in the U.K.’s dance and club scene, working with rising stars including Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emeli Sandé, and Jimmy Napes, who co-wrote Smith’s “Stay With Me.” The Disclosure brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence—who were still in diapers when Blige was scaling the charts in the late ’90s, and used her as the vocalist on their own “F For You” remix early last year—seem especially impressed that she sought them out, though all the musicians interviewed emanate tremendous respect for both the singer’s work ethic and skill. (And Blige turns the tables in one particularly resonant scene when she meets with Amy Winehouse’s father the day after the third anniversary of the star’s death and tells him that saw a lot of herself in his daughter, and thought she may even have been able to make a difference in her life if they’d had the chance to meet.)
Still, the doubt cropped up again: “My fans were like, ‘Oh, Mary, you can just do whatever you want!’” Blige told the audience after beginning her set with a triumphant take “Therapy,” The London Sessions’ opening track. “But I can’t do whatever I want. I needed to go to London; I don’t know if you’d seen the last three or four years of my life, but every day something horrible was going on, and it was on TV. That’s what we go through as artists—it’s on TV!”
“It was just a time that was so dark that it gave me time to reflect and see myself as a stronger person. So while people were laughing and things were just horrible, I went out and bought brighter colors, made my hair blonder, and said ‘You’re going to go out and deal with this.’” Blige’s band then kicked into another London Sessions cut, “Doubt,” to underscore the event’s conclusion: She dealt with it.
After blazing through six London Sessions highlights, Blige dipped into her catalog for three vintage cuts, first redefining what a vocalist can do in live performance on a stunning rendition of 2001’s “No More Drama,” then reviving her tender cover of U2’s “One” before closing out the night with a raucous version of one of her biggest hits, “Family Affair.”
The evening’s professionalism, emotion, and true display of talented confirmed that while Blige may have just put out a new record—the first in her career that hasn’t yet gone gold or platinum—her legacy is already etched in recording industry stone.
“Not Loving You”
“Whole Damn Year”
“Nobody But You”
“No More Drama”
“One (U2 cover)”