Mary Obliges

MARY J. BLIGE at the Air Canada Centre, February 18. Tickets: $39.50-$69.50. Attendance: 4,000. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNmary j. blige.

MARY J. BLIGE at the Air Canada Centre, February 18. Tickets: $39.50-$69.50. Attendance: 4,000. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN

mary j. blige looked like shehad something to prove Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.The closest thing contemporary, airbrushed R&B has got to old-school soul, Blige nonetheless has been blindsided by the crossover success of anemic newcomers like Alicia Keys. The self-proclaimed Queen of Hiphop Soul’s title has been threatened. The response Monday was deafening.

Blige’s stage was relatively stripped-down, at least by R&B standards. There was little spectacle, no hype men or ridiculous props, just an eight-piece band, some backup dancers and the singer herself, shouting for almost 100 minutes non-stop.

That she was actually singing — a novelty in R&B — was evident from the get-go, though the predominantly female audience gave her plenty of help on songs like Real Love. More impressive was how defiant and delightfully unpolished she sounded, showing a rawness that’s only partially revealed on record.

Blige is now claiming she’s free of drama, beyond the appliance-throwing temper tantrums, domestic abuse and drug problems that once dominated her life. Yet while celebratory tracks like the Dr. Dre-produced anthem Family Affair are fine, Blige is best when she’s wounded.

The middle section of the set was a wrenching song cycle about getting knocked down and climbing your way back up. Going through song after song about heartbreak and pain only seemed to wind Blige up even more, an arc that culminated in an apocalyptic version of Children Of The Ghetto belted out with eye-popping intensity.

Occasionally, the non-stop tragedy threatened to turn into melodrama, but for more than an hour Blige sounded like the best female singer of her generation. Pretenders to her crown should be very concerned.

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