Mary J. Blige and Nas rule 'Royalty Tour' stop at Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum, playing more than 40 songs

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Mary J. Blige and Nas are celebrating the silver anniversaries of "My Life" and "Illmatic," respectively, two of the most influential albums of the past quarter-century. 

But watching the two celebrating together at Fiserv Forum Tuesday for "The Royalty Tour" was a golden opportunity. 

With more than 120 million records sold and 44 Grammy nominations between them, Blige and Nas brought quite the pedigree to Milwaukee, touching on more than 40 songs across two hours and 15 minutes. Some of those songs were played for just a few seconds, but the brisk pace of the show, and the investment of the stars, ensured there was never a dull moment, and that the show was more than a victory lap.

Mary J Blige and Nas perform at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Tuesday during their Royalty Tour.

Following a brief joint performance of new, ego-stroking track "Thriving" and "Reach Out," Blige and her band ran off to let Nas seize the stage for 45 minutes. Backed by his own full band and DJ, the rapper wasted no time getting into "Illmatic," front-loading the set with standouts from his seminal debut album like "N.Y. State of Mind," "Life's a (Expletive)," "Represent," "Halftime" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell."

"Illmatic" was a hip-hop breakthrough thanks to Nas' candid and poetic expression of coming of age in the inner city, and all the anguish and determination that comes with it. He's 45 now, but Nas showed Tuesday he still connected with that material through the youthful swagger of his flow — although it was his message of hope, expressed through "Illmatic"'s "The World Is Yours," and later Tuesday, "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" and the Beethoven-sampling "I Can," that seemed to resonate most with the rapper. 

"If I can make it, anybody can make it," Nas told the crowd Tuesday during one of his fleeting breaks between songs. "It's never too late to get started."

While Nas may not have been an especially animated performer, his natural charisma seemed to be motivation enough for the 48-year-old Blige to bring her A-game for her closing 80 minutes. Or perhaps the nine-time Grammy winner was eager to prove that last month's Lifetime Achievement Award at the BET Awards was by no means a career-capper. 

Whatever the reason, the heralded "Queen of Hip Hop Soul" came out strong for "I Can Love You," mirroring the bravado of her four backing dancers for the first 10 songs of her set, which included a Nas cameo at the end of "Love Is All We Need." 

But the crew was largely absent by the time Blige focused on "My Life," with an extended medley featuring several album tracks like "Mary Jane (All Night Long)," "Be Happy," "You Bring Me Joy," "You Gotta Believe" and more. 

"My Life" is an empowering record that came to resemble much of Blige's work, not just musically, but as an Oscar-nominated actress as well. And that defiance was especially potent Tuesday during "My Life '06," her 2006 remake of the album's title track, with Blige passionately serving hard-earned inspiration about getting past the pain and finding peace as flames shot up on the stage to match her fiery vocals. 

She earned the breather for follow-up "I'm Goin' Down," extending the mic to the audience for much of the song, who offered a sweet singalong. But Blige went back to church-rattling belting for a highly theatrical "No More Drama" — and even did squats in her heels as she sang — the performance ending with Blige collapsing onto the fog-covered stage. 

Nothing could top that, not even a Nas appearance for one of Blige's signature hits, show finale "Family Affair." It ended with Blige getting on her knees to bow down before Nas, although she was the performer of the night without question.

Also without question: Fans who checked out Blige and Nas in Milwaukee were rewarded with a show worthy of their status. 

The takeaways 

  • Despite the star power Tuesday and long track record of hits, it was disappointing (and puzzling) to see a fair number of empty seats. The upper bowl was also curtained off. 
  • Nas dropped a new album, "The Lost Tapes II," earlier this month, but all the album received was a brief shout-out at the end of the set. That was a pity, considering the album's single "Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack)" is a tribute to late Milwaukee musical great Al Jarreau.
  • I saw a guy at one point walking up the aisle near my seat holding up an autographed picture of Mary J. Blige and a wad of cash illuminated by his smartphone light. Maybe he was authorized to be selling pics with the tour, but considering I saw security flash a light at him at one point, and he never showed up in our section again, I'm thinking not. 
  • Sample banter, from Blige: "If you're a king, that means your queen has chosen you. At the end of the day, the way you met her is the way you got to keep her. You got to keep spending money on her, you got to keep opening that door, you got to keep that relationship fresh. ... And ladies, we got to keep ourselves fly. We can't let that (expletive) that he looking at outshine us. ... Yeah, I learned that the hard way too, but I learned it."

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Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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