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Delivering The Goods

Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, 1st Mariner Arena, March 26

Frank Hamilton
IT'S HOT (SOME LIKE IT HOT): Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z tear up the 1st Mariner stage.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/2/2008

"You ready for change, right?" Jay-Z asks the 1st Mariner Arena's capacity crowd as casually as he might request a glass of water or inquire about the price of an NBA franchise. It's two hours into the Heart of the City tour, which teams Mr. Z and Mary J. Blige for 23 stops this spring, and most of the arena's seats haven't had an ass on them since it started. It's only the second stop, but if there's any snag in the evening's tightly choreographed show, it's hard to tell. To wit: On the JumboTron screen behind Jay-Z is a photo of President Bush looking characteristically enlightened. A few beats after Jay-Z asks his rhetorical question the JumboTron cuts to a photo of Sen. Barack Obama. Near pandemonium ensues.

"I'm just expressing my own personal feelings," Jay-Z smiles after the noise ebbs. And for a brief moment you expect hip-hop's CEO to announce the obama/ jay-z 2008 ticket. Instead, he returns to that "gangster shit," and the night continues on its nonstop roll through two of the most hit-laden discographies in modern rap and R&B.

It's just another night's work for Jay-Z. Clad in jeans, sneaks, shades, and a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt, Jay-Z coolly moved through his set, slightly favoring his most recent American Gangster release. Backed by a full band, he started a bit too intensely as the band blared "Say Hello" and "Roc Boys." His microphone sounded too hot early on, as if the sound board had to turn him up to be heard over the music's beefy blasts.

But Jay-Z is a crowd-pleasing showman, and eventually launched into "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," "Jigga What, Jigga Who," "99 Problems," and a short Jackson 5 "I Want You Back" intro to "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." He doesn't even have to play all his anthems. Toward the end he sauntered over to his DJ's decks and ignited various pre-sequenced beats--"Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love"--and let them rattle speakers briefly before stopping them and sighing, "Fuck that." "Big Pimpin'" was so enthusiastically greeted that he clicked off the track and led the entire crowd through an a cappella version. That's just where Jay-Z is in his career: He doesn't always have to rap onstage anymore.

Nobody appeared to mind--possibly because Mary J. Blige set the place on fire. She and Jay-Z start the concert together with his "Can't Knock the Hustle." After which he exits, leaving Blige--clad in black stretch pants, knee-high black boots with stiletto heels, and a rhinestone-encrusted black leather jacket--to tear nonstop for more than an hour.

What makes Blige so irresistible is how she takes stereotypical female "issues"--raw emotionalism, needing to talk about the relationship, demanding that the inner boy stand up and be a man--and turns them not only into reasons to celebrate femininity but forces of nature with which you should not fuck. And when Blige calls on her ladies, they represent in screaming adoration. One either gets down at the Mary J. Blige show or one is the bald white guy getting hit in the head at the Mary J. Blige show by the flailing limbs and hair of a grown woman who is absolutely, positively not going to let you spoil her party.

But who can party-poop this? Jay-Z dashes in for Biggie's "Real Love" verse, and after Blige brings the house down--for the first time--with "Stay Down," almost every song becomes a show-stopper: "Not Gon' Cry," "No More Drama," ad infinitum. You know how she do: crouched down, right foot stomping the stage, and singing a song as if it could be the last time she ever does.

And, yes, we all know that big-ticket shows are orchestrated down to the nanosecond, but it takes a serious pro to preach the packaged goods to the choir and get it to sing. And after two and a half hours, after Jay-Z and Blige encore with the tour's titular "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)," you feel just as exhausted as the sweaty superstars onstage.

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