“To be royal is to be tested and to be tried and to be proven, and if you’re here tonight and you’re a Mary J. Blige and Nas fan, you have been tested, you have been tried and you have been proven,” Blige told the audience filling the sold-out Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night for the last stop of her and Nas’ The Royalty Tour.
It was a night dedicated to the most “die-hard, been there since 1991” fans of each performer, echoed by Blige’s many thanks. The New York natives put out two albums in 1994 that changed the hip-hop and R&B game forever. My Life by Blige crowned the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart that year and reigned as the R&B/Hip-Hop Album of the Year at the 1995 Billboard Music Awards, revealing the raw narrative of her struggle with drugs, alcohol and an abusive relationship.
For Nas, his Illmatic record characterized an emblematic time for the young MC, whose inward poetic perspective of the inner-city life — drug addiction, poverty, gang warfare — in his native Queensbridge, N.Y., alongside its multi-layered production embedded itself as a milestone in East Coast hip-hop. Illmatic peaked at No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart within the same year of My Life, marking the two rookies as leaders of a new generation.
The tribute to Blige’s My Life and Nas’ Illmatic at the Bowl embraced a dual nature in its charm, which one concertgoer described best as “a hood-rich barbeque.” Attendees dined on chicken wings and fries at their fold-up tables in the Bowl’s terraces while blowing thick clouds of marijuana smoke and sipping from expensive champagne bottles nested on ice. Halfway through his set before performing “Halftime,” Nas reminded his fans, “The ones I love most are my ghetto motherfuckers,” because in a space where real recognizes real, the hip-hop veteran wanted to call out that the royalty he revels in now wasn’t always there.
In 2019, these two, in their rises to hip-hop/R&B stardom, acknowledge each other in the same dignified manner they have received from fans and critics over the last 25 years — even saluting each other as “Your Highness.” In an intro montage clip before the show, Blige described the co-headlining tour as a “no-brainer” and Nas chimed in to call the joint venture “an honor. She is the queen.”
It’s fitting the opening shot on the stage’s screen featured Blige and Nas atop red velvet thrones, preceding the regal performers real-life entrance center stage (read: ascending from beneath), standing back-to-back. Their rise is one, and it is to be celebrated synchronously.
These two are “Thriving” after 25 iconic years of being in the hip-hop/R&B game. The opening performance celebrates their latest single together from earlier this year. pic.twitter.com/yK7cXpF2gT
— heran mamo– (@heranmamo) September 18, 2019
The anniversary celebration began with their more recent collaborations, as “Thriving” from earlier this year and “Reach Out” from 2012 captivated the old-school crowd. But the good stuff everyone was ready to reminisce about and recite were coming.
“I could take this shit so far back here,” Nas quipped. He remembered the “cassette days” before booming “The World Is Yours” off Illmatic from the Bowl’s speakers. The New York “b-boys and girls” from his “I Can” statement video and juvenile photos of Nas flashing on screen during “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” indicated Nas’ set as an ode to the neighborhood kids and his younger self. The show visualized his come-up as a hip-hop great who never strayed away from the genre’s basic tenets originating from the streets of New York, even when he just sold out a major Los Angeles amphitheater.
But how he maintains good juju is totally an LA thing: His penultimate song and latest solo release from this summer, “No Bad Energy,” showed just how in tune he is with the spiritual culture popular here. And he’s a proud Virgo (like myself), shouting out to those sharing his star sign because streamlining his show to a fault is just another characteristic of the grounded Earth sign.
— heran mamo– (@heranmamo) September 18, 2019
Before Blige graced the audience again with her presence, Diddy appeared onscreen to announce, “All hail the queen.” It takes more than one hip-hop giant to do the honors, especially since Diddy helped produce the majority of her My Life record. In a 2015 interview with Apple Music’s Beats 1, he described the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s sophomore album as “pure, it’s just raw emotions…. That’s a certain time, just like you hear some stuff from The Beatles or you hear some stuff from Nas or something like that, you just know this right here is something special in this moment of time.”
As special as the release of Blige’s album was in 1994, fans in 2019 felt its timeless potency Tuesday night when she crooned her zestful romantic ballads one after the other. A bevy of her female fans shimmied in unison to the remix of “Love No Limit” and “Real Love,” with hands over their hearts as they recited the lyrics without missing a word or a beat. It was a deep dedication to an R&B songstress-turned-goddess that predated Beyoncé.
Blige sang “Not Gon’ Cry” for the beginning of the encore, using a female-empowerment breakup anthem to show how to bring a show back and how to bounce back from a romantic setback. Her astounding runs while singing “He wasn’t worth” re-emphasized the painstaking lengths of Blige’s personal heartbreak, crying tears of joy that the sold-out Bowl “is just filling me up.”