Concert Review

Nas and Mary J. Blige Treated Phoenicians Like Royalty

Mary J. Blige and Nas arrive onstage at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
Mary J. Blige and Nas arrive onstage at Ak-Chin Pavilion. Melissa Fossum
I respect Nas’ commitment to cosplaying as Scarface's Tony Montana. It takes balls to wear an all-white suit when performing in Phoenix in August.

Nas and Mary J. Blige’s Royalty Tour picked a good night to swing by Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix. It was warm and muggy out, but not so hot that you’d turn into a waterfall of sweat after five minutes. That didn’t stop Nas from perspiring in his drug kingpin suit until it was practically sheer. It wasn’t the weather, though, that turned Nasty Nas into Stainy Nas. It was all the high energy and effort he brought to his set.

It’s only fitting for a tour featuring “No More Drama” in its setlist that the show went off without a hitch. At exactly 8:30 p.m. on Friday night, a half-hour after doors opened, the show started. There was no long delay, opening acts, or bullshit. The purple curtain draped across the front of the stage got yanked down and the royalty got straight down to business.

The biggest surprise behind that curtain was the presence of not one but two full live bands: guitars, keys, drums, DJs, and backup singers. A projection screen overhead played a self-mythologizing video about Nas and Blige, showing them wearing crowns and sitting side-by-side on thrones. If the duo put on a less than stellar show, this video of the two of them talking about how great they are would be profoundly embarrassing.

Luckily, Nas and Blige showed that they're the rarest kind of royalty, because they actually earned their crowns.

Both of them appeared together, rising from the floor on an elevated stage, to perform “Thriving” — Nas nattily dressed in pristine drug whites while Blige wore a gold sequined dress with hoop earrings so large that you could throw a tennis ball through them.

“The person who took it on her back and made it happen," Nas said as he introduced Blige as the queen of hip-hop soul.

The disparity in their vocals was pretty striking at first. Nas’ voice boomed through the speakers, while Blige struggled to be heard over the band.

After Blige left the stage, Nas immediately gave people exactly what they wanted from him: Illmatic. Nas tore through the first three tracks, rapping nimbly and with the kind of confidence reserved for people who know that the shit they’re saying is legendary.

click to enlarge Nas gave the audience at Ak-Chin Pavilion what they wanted. - MELISSA FOSSUM
Nas gave the audience at Ak-Chin Pavilion what they wanted.
Melissa Fossum
Over two decades later, Illmatic remains as essential as ever. What’s even more impressive is that time hasn’t dulled Nas’ voice. You could close your eyes as he rapped “N.Y. State of Mind” at Ak-Chin Pavilion and picture him circa 1994 rapping those exact same lines. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

It was interesting to hear how Nas and his band have changed Illmatic in a live setting. The songs lose some of their soulful warmth onstage, but also became funkier and edgier. Some tracks are almost unrecognizable. “Life’s a Bitch,” in particular, sounded entirely new, but still pretty good in its own right.

What was also striking was how Nas’ post-Illmatic material sounded the same live. You’d think the opposite would be true. They’d try to play the classic record straight and save the experimentation for “Oochie Wally.” It’s always a bold move to Bob Dylan-ize the stuff people want to hear most.

Nas was eager to interact with the crowd and use up as much of the stage's geography as possible. He bounded from one corner to the other, rapping while old music video footage screened behind him and jets of flame, steam, and sparks occasionally burst in the background. There was even a brief clip of (what else?) Scarface, in case you forgot that Nasir “The World Is Yours” Jones is a huge Scarface stan.

While he started off with Illmatic joints, Nas' set wasn't a traditional play-the-whole-record anniversary show. He interspersed his other hits between the '94 cuts: “Hate Me Now,” “I Can,” “Got Ur Self a Gun,” “Oochie Wallie,” “If I Ruled the World,” “One Mic,” and “Project Windows.”

Aside from his mic cutting out in spots during "Project Windows," Nas' set went off without a hitch. He was the consummate pro: charming, generous to the audience, and on point with the beats and his flow. It wouldn't be hard to imagine him doing Illmatic in Vegas in his 60s and 70s. Maybe Nas and Jay-Z could take up residencies at rival hotels and reignite their "Ether" rivalry.

click to enlarge Mary J. Blige left the drama at home. - MELISSA FOSSUM
Mary J. Blige left the drama at home.
Melissa Fossum
Coming back out in a blue dress for her solo set, Blige belted out "I Can Love You" in a voice that had no problem vaulting over the sound of a live band. While she didn't talk much to the crowd, she made up for a lack of banter with a whole bunch of dancing. Backed by four dancers, Blige broke it down throughout her set.

Like Nas, Blige based part of her set on the 25th anniversary of My Life. But she didn't give the album a shoutout until halfway through her set, right after playing a video medley of her hits (including her "You're All I Need" duet with Method Man, an absolute banger that's so good that the two of them should be forced by law to perform it together whenever they're in within a 20-mile radius of each other). She mostly focused on giving people the big songs: "Real Love," "Someone to Love Me," "No More Drama," and "Everything." The crowd responded eagerly to the big numbers, singing along with Blige as pyro flared behind her.

Overall, The Royalty Tour was engineered to give people what they want. Both of them committed to the gig with 100 percent gusto when they could have phoned it in, and that made all the difference.

It was an unabashedly nostalgic night. You could hear almost the entire audience nodding in unison when Nas started talking about being a part of the "cassette generation."

"You want to listen to the underground, you had to get one of these tapes and put 'em in your box," Nas said, leaning down to slide an invisible tape inside a make-believe boombox.

Crouching low to the floor, the rapper jabbed an invisible play button on the boombox. And behind him, right on cue, the band started playing "Halftime" — the sound of the underground in 1994, resurrected on a muggy night in 2019.

click to enlarge Mary J. Blige and Nas arrive onstage at Ak-Chin Pavilion. - MELISSA FOSSUM
Mary J. Blige and Nas arrive onstage at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
Melissa Fossum
Critic’s Notebook

Last Night: The Royalty Tour with Mary J. Blige and Nas at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.

The Crowd: A grown and sexy audience. Definitely an older crowd — there weren’t many teens or young adults singing along to “Everything.” This seemed to be a prime Girls' Night Out destination; there were a lot of fishbowl cocktail-sipping ladies getting their “WOOO” on out there.

Overheard: “I burn my sage on the stage with this song.” – Nas, ushering in the New Age portion of his set wherein he led the audience in a singsong-y chant of “No bad energy, please, no bad energy.” Nas went from Pablo Escobar to Carlos Castaneda in the blink of an eye.

Random Notebook Dump: On the way into the venue, I stood in front of a bachelorette party in line. They had pregamed pretty hard — so hard that they had sped past tipsy and ended up at that point where you’re so drunk you can communicate by saying “WOOO” at varying levels of volume. It was like being stuck in line with a bunch of Ric Flairs wearing even more sparkly clothing.
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Ashley Naftule