Review: Mary J. Blige, fresh off Oscar nominations, unleashes soulful fury on Amalie Arena in Tampa

The 'Mudbound' star arrived less than two weeks before the Academy Awards.
Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Published Feb. 22, 2018

It took 10 songs and a solid half hour of furious funk for Mary J. Blige to stop strutting and dancing to sit and sermonize on matters of faith and fidelity.

"I'm going to say it for you, because I'm a little crazy," she told nearly 6,500 fans Wednesday at Tampa's Amalie Arena, addressing men in general, and probably one man in particular. "Don't you ever come home comparing me to no other female, because there's only one Mary J. Blige out here, and it's too bad you can't see it! Oh, yeah, I came to act up tonight!"

Really? There's only one Mary J. Blige? Because at this unique moment in popular culture, there seem to be two.

There's the one riding high in Hollywood with two nominations at next month's Oscars – Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for the weighty Netflix period drama Mudbound. And then there's the one who roared into Tampa as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, a woman almost always in motion, at times doubled over from the sheer force of her performance.

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The chasm between Blige's subdued, put-upon performance in Mudbound and her forceful, full-bodied commitment as a singer may be a big reason for her acting nomination in the first place.  One is worried and wary, with a look of dread on her face the whole film. The other is a tornado of soul in a skintight sequined catsuit, and someone who's not afraid to let her whole life hang out in the open.

"This journey has not been easy, and it's still not easy," said Blige, 47. "If you're out there praying for me, your prayers have been received. I appreciate you."

Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

She was likely referring to a bitter divorce that's played out over the past two years, complete with accusations of infidelity and squabbles over spousal support – another stark contrast to her most recent Hollywood splash. If she's trying to channel all that rage and frustration into her concerts, it's working.

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Backed by a five-piece band and three singers, Blige tore into the first half of her set with barely a breather between songs. She dropped and clapped on Enough Cryin', sparkled like gold in the stage lights on Joy, got everyone on their feet on the big, bassy funk numbers Be Happy and Love No Limit. And when she moved, she moved, her body tilting and twirling, spinning on her spike heels, clutching her gut as she hunched over, consumed by the song. More than once, fans erupted into spontaneous chants of, "Go Mary! Go Mary! Go Mary!"

Then after a brief costume change, she came back for a set laden with more simmering tracks – the sultry, jazzy My Life; the brimstone-laced I'm Going Down; the possessed, half-rapped U+ Me (Love Version); the confessional Everything. And here is where the set once again turned into a sermon.

"Mary J. Blige is a soldier," she said. "I'm a fighter, and I'm going to beat anything that's on this earth, 'cause I'm not scared. And if you're a fighter just like me tonight, and you ain't scared of nothing on this earth, and you know you want to beat that cancer, you know you want to fight for your husband, you know you're going to win your child back, put your fist in the air, and let's fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!"

It's been draining on Blige, these last two years of highs and lows. On the all-consuming Not Gon' Cry, her body hunched and shook as her voice ricocheted up and down every octave; on the the redemptive No More Drama, her voice sounded strained, like a growl, by the time she collapsed, sapped, at the end. Often on Wednesday she let the crowd sing some off her biggest hits, but at that moment, she could not be denied.

"That's a bad chick," the guy behind me murmured, twice. "Go ahead, Mary!"

Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Mary J. Blige performed at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

When she booked this tour, Blige might not have imagined she'd be a double Oscar nominee when she hit Tampa less than two weeks before the ceremony. You'd think she'd be in full-on campaign mode, working For Your Consideration appearances into every hole in her schedule, not twisting her tail off for 6,500 fans 2,500 miles from the Kodak Theater.

But she didn't even play her nominated song Mighty River – and honestly, it's for the best. The somber, Oscar-baity ballad would've sounded egregiously, hilariously out of place at Wednesday's show, which in truth says more about the Oscars than it does about Mary J's ability to sell a song.

It just goes to show that win or lose at the Oscars, the singer we see on stage isn't changing. There's only one Mary J. Blige out here. She's the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. And she's still acting up quite a storm.

— Jay Cridlin