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Mary J. Blige 

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Ushered into contemporary R&B by the then-Sean "Puffy" Combs, Mary J. Blige's intense, soulful vocals dominated '90s R&B charts, from 1992's What's the 411? hit "Real Love," to 1995's "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By," a duet with Method Man that propelled both the Wu-Tang Clan alum and Blige to Grammy-winning status. Eight platinum albums, eight Grammys and a performance at Barack Obama's inauguration later, Blige leans a little less on hip-hop and sample-heavy, rhyme-ready beats of her formative years with her latest album, 2009's Stronger With Each Tear — this time, Blige gets her Led out. Her take on Led Zeppelin's sweat-dripping "Whole Lotta Love" is pure disco-spinning pop, and "Stairway to Heaven" showcases Blige's otherworldly pipes. In the studio for that cut? Blink 182's Travis Barker and Steve Vai, the over-the-top guitar mad man. Is Blige jumping off the R&B bandwagon? Is she a hesher at heart? Earlier this year she told "You got to get lost in the rock 'n' roll moment of it all, and once you get lost in the rock 'n' roll moment of it, all you can do is scream to the top of your lungs or go as low as you need to go. It's not a head thing — it's a spirit thing." Blige may have sold her soul to rock 'n' roll, but the "queen of hip-hop soul" isn't straying from her empire. On the club-ready, decidedly non-rock 'n' roll "The One," Blige sings "I ain't saying that I am the best, but I'm the best." — Alex Woodward

Mary J. Blige

9:40 p.m., Sunday, July 4

Essence Music Festival, Main Stage


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