- Mary J. Blige
Since she debuted a dozen years ago, Mary J. Blige has come to be known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Any number of pretenders to that throne have emerged in the interim, yet no one has wrested the crown away from the original, whose What's the 411 created a dominant musical template that we now take for granted: passionate crooning backed by hard hip-hop beats and attitude. The P. Diddy protégée reunited with her mentor on her last outing, Life and Love -- a virtual paean to positivity after a decade of recorded pain -- and was rewarded with her second No. 1 pop album.
Although his understated, boy-next-door appeal might seem at odds with Blige's in-your-face street drama, Musiq actually makes a highly compatible opening act. The neosoul singer works a similar intersection of rap and R&B, leaning more toward the latter, but with many of the same vintage influences as Blige. He's made three fine, thoughtful albums, each demonstrating improvement; the latest, Soulstar, was one of 2003's best urban releases.