Mary J. Blige & Nas Budweiser Stage, Toronto ON, September 10
Published Sep 11, 2019At this stage, they could hit cruise control and still win the night.
The reputations and catalogues of Nasir Jones and Mary Jane Blige are as golden as the crowns they donned for the Royalty Tour's promotional video. So when Nas pauses mid-set to survey the crowd filling the Toronto amphitheatre, he looks pleased and at ease on this warm September night.
"I love this town," the icon beams. Then a tease: "We've got so many songs, we could go till morning."
He's not wrong. With 13 solo albums apiece, '90s legends and occasional collaborators Nas, 45, and Blige, 48, have reached a point in their careers where they now record only when the mood strikes, and reach back in time to trot out the failsafe hits when it comes time to hit the stage.
They continually dream up new angles to lure the same fan base to groove to the same tunes. Nas, the project-window poet with the mostly male fan base, has previously toured with Ms. Lauryn Hill, and celebrated his seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic, with a documentary screening/live performance. Conversely, Blige has co-headlined stadiums with peers JAY-Z, D'Angelo and Maxwell over the past decade.
With a handful of duets dating back to 1997's "Love Is All I Need," the Queens-Bronx connection embarking on a 29-date summer swing makes a ton of sense.
The only Canadian date on the tour begins with the co-headliners emerging in matching outfits to perform "Thriving," their brand new duet, with the backing of a tight seven-piece band that includes DJ Green Lantern. Following second duet, "Reach Out," Mary leaves the dais to Nas.
As a sparkling, diamond-encrusted QB pendant the size of a coaster dangles and bounces off his black hoodie, the Queensbridge MC expertly and efficiently rips through a 20-track throwback set of mostly '90s singles and album favourites: "It Ain't Hard to Tell," "Halftime," "Hate Me Now," "I Can," "Got Ur Self a Gun," "Nas Is Like," "The Message." These are joints he's performed a thousand times over, but the live band and occasional beat switch — he shouts out late friend Prodigy before spitting overtop of the band's rendition of Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" — keep things fresh.
Most songs are clipped short after a verse or two, but deep cut "Project Windows," commercial smash "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" — sadly, we were denied an opportunity to hear Mary do Lauryn's chorus — and the epic "One Mic" play out in full. And "Make You Look" soars, as always.
As precise and effortless as Nas's performance is, however, it feels almost too safe and nostalgic. The second half of his career is essentially ignored. We'd be open to hearing highlights from recent releases The Lost Tapes 2 and Nasir.
A brief interlude gives way to Mary's re-entrance in door-knocker earrings and a set of boots that stretch way up past mid-thigh. All the ladies in the house lose it to hip-hop soul gems like "I Can Love You," "Someone to Love Me (Naked)" and "Real Love." Regal and confident, Blige's survived-the-pain voice rockets without aid of backing tracks. And the Queen has still got dance moves, keeping in choreographed step with the pairs of backup steppers (two male, two female) that pop on and off stage.
Nas returns to the stage to spice up "Love Is All We Need," and Mary celebrates the 25th anniversary of her most personal album, My Life, by nailing renditions of "Mary Jane (All Night Long)" and "I'm Goin' Down," the latter ascending to an fierce crescendo that draws the loudest cheers of the evening.
Amazingly, she hasn't lost a step.
After more than two hours of bangers, the show reaches a climax with the indisputable "Family Affair," Nas returning once more to lace the Dr. Dre-produced smash with a few bars, and Mary singing her heart out.
The two walk off into the dark together, a couple of icons just doing what they do.