Four years ago, the queen of hip-hop soul said she was through with drama, but Mary J. Blige without drama is like rain without water: No major R&B artist who emerged in the ’90s has plumbed her own psychological depths so effectively without embarrassing herself. What she probably meant was that it’s time to party, and while it’s nice to see she’s grown more confident in her skills and less spooked by her success, one couldn’t help but miss the note of desperation that gave her ’90s albums their edge. In 2002, when she came to Japan for the first time in eight years and performed “No More Drama” in concert, she proved that that edge was as sharp as ever. Regardless of her reputation as a moody prima donna in the studio, Blige never fails to connect with her fans. The material on her latest CD, “Love & Life,” pulls slightly back from the good-time vibe of the previous record, but its relative tentativeness shouldn’t be interpreted as loss of nerve. Blige is an instinctive performer. Even with all the choreography and production that’s become standard for R&B shows, her intensity is genuine and immediately felt. The girl can’t help it.
Big Boi, the cerebral half of Outkast, can’t help it either, but he’s a bit more calculating with his superstar prerogatives. On Outkast’s most recent multiplatinum double-disc album, Big Boi and his earthier partner, Andre 3000, each took charge of a disc, but rather than splitting the difference the album doubles the fun. Big Boi took advantage of the expanded opportunity on his disc, called “Speakerboxx,” by surveying the landscape that stretched beyond the funky Dirty South sound he helped invent. It says something about his priorities that his record has more guests and a wider thematic agenda than his partner’s does. He can jump from an antigovernment rant like “War” to a totally ambiguous goof called “Church” without altering his tone, which can be worldly without losing any of its personality or funkiness. The fact that he’s coming to Japan by himself will probably dismay Outkast fans who hoped that the split-album didn’t portend a congruent parting of the careers, but you never know. Dre might jet over just for a lark. That’s one superstar prerogative everyone can get behind.
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