A hip-hop spectacle with heart in the city

Both are edging close to 40. So it was fitting that Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z, two legendary figures in the youth-obsessed world of hip-hop, brought some grown-up class to Heart of the City, their joint national tour.

The nearly three-hour show, which packed 1st Mariner Arena on Wednesday night, was grandly presented. But neither artist forsook the accessible, ghetto-fabulous elements that made each a superstar more than a decade ago.


The two were backed by a Titanic band, which included a 12-piece horn-and-string section. The musicians were outfitted in dapper white shirts, black vests and ties. Chandeliers hung above the sparkly set, which included two flights of stairs and a huge video screen as a backdrop. There were pyrotechnics, showers of sparks. Blige and Jay-Z seemed at home amid the spectacle.

The show opened with a short clip, shot in black and white, in which Blige and Jay-Z discussed their admiration for each other's work. Then the dark curtains parted, revealing the two standing back to back, arms crossed in the famed b-boy stance reminiscent of Run DMC. Together, they performed the remix of Jay-Z's "Can't Knock the Hustle."


Blige shadowed him, wailing the lines lifted from Meli'sa Morgan's "Fool's Paradise" as she danced around the stage in that loose-limbed, slightly masculine way of hers. Afterward, Jay-Z split and turned the stage over to Blige, who sailed through a medley of her early hits, including "Reminisce" and "Real Love." Her vocals - still flawed by pitch problems - were assured and powerful nonetheless. She sang against the huge band, mostly sticking with the sister-be-strong anthems that made her a multiplatinum star.

"My ladies feel me?" Blige asked the female-dominated arena before launching into "No More Drama," her unofficial anthem. As images of slate-gray clouds rushed across the screen behind the band, the native New Yorker barreled through the melodramatic tune. She ran the length of the stage, jumping up and down, even squatting and jumping - all while belting "no more, no more." It was exhilarating.

But the act was undercut by a painfully overwrought performance of "Your Child," an otherwise affecting ballad about a woman discovering that her man has a secret baby. As Blige sang, three actors - a man and two women - acted out the song on one side of the stage. It was unnecessary and overdone. But the singer redeemed herself at the end of her hourlong set with a soul-venting rendition of "Be Without You," her 2006 pop smash and one of her best cuts.

After a quick intermission, Jay-Z re-emerged. The strings were gone, but the horns remained, giving brassy power to his greatest hits. Where Blige was feverish and histrionic, the rapper was cool in a zipped-up leather jacket and shades. He spun his deft lines in his famed nonchalant style that borders on arrogance.

But Jay-Z has charisma to spare. He still manages to be engaging without breaking a sweat. And unlike Blige, he's warmly interactive with the audience and even flashes a boyish smile.

He dipped in and out of his greatest album, 1996's capitalist-rap classic Reasonable Doubt, and his latest effort, the slightly overrated American Gangster, released last year. The sinisterly cinematic cuts from that CD also felt forced on stage. But his pop-friendlier hits - "Jigga What, Jigga Who," "Can I Get A ... " and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" - garnered the most response. He also seemed more relaxed delivering them.

At the close of the energetic show, Blige and Jay-Z were back together, performing the title theme of the tour. The rapper nodded as Blige wailed, "Ain't no love in the heart of the city."

Love may be scarce, but there's still a lot of fun there.