Mary J. Blige has long since established that the title the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” bestowed upon her was not a marketing slogan. From parlance to panache, she’s an original, possessing enough stripes to be the rare artist that can sell out a cross-country tour with no new project on the shelves. However, a new one is highly anticipated in early 2011, courtesy of her collaboration on the club buster “Fancy” with Drake.

Although we knew what to expect, I and about 3,999 others at the MGM Grand Theatre at Foxwoods Resort and Casino were still floored at the conclusion of her nearly two-hour performance, particularly the ultra dramatic “Your Child” and the semi-acoustic “Take Me as I Am.” No need to wax poetic on specifics. We all know that from bangers to ballads, Mary left everything on the stage during her tristate run.

A featured special guest performer on select dates of the tour can perhaps rival Mary’s testament to music as salvation for the aptly titled “Music Saved My Life Tour”: Mr. El DeBarge. A sterling performance at the 2010 BET Awards has revived interest in the music and the man, and he’s currently in the midst of both the tour with Mary and his own headline dates.

The mission was reacquainting himself with his fan base began last week with an intimate, sold-out performance at SOB’s. He then found his way back to the city with two nights at Radio City Music Hall.

In a conversation prior to embarking on the trek, El offered, “All these opportunities are great and I’ll never take them for granted. For a second, you can look for me to be standing there in awe of your presence because I’m so grateful to still have my ability to write, play and I still have my chops. When I get over that, we’re gonna dance a little, we’re gonna sing and crush a lot, and just have some fun. With that intimate setting, we’re really gonna mingle.”

As for Radio City Music Hall, the sentiment came through. When he was reminded that it was on that very stage that this writer first saw him perform live as an opening act for Luther Vandross, El, through laughter, reminisced, saying, “Those were some great days. That was our first national tour; Luther broke us in. Now I’m back again. God is good. Miguel is gonna introduce himself to the public; Jazmine Sullivan is gonna grace the stage with her beauty and her gift. Mary will do her, and I’m going to bring some love, some feel-good–and I wanna talk about the triumph of the human spirit.”

I can’t speak to the Radio City dates, but as for the SOB’s joint: mission accomplished. It took a second to find his stride, but once it was found, it was a wrap. Comprised of signature songs like “All This Love,” “Time Will Reveal,” and “Stay with Me,” El showed one of his biggest influences to be brother Bobby of the group Switch and killer renditions of “There Will Never Be” and “I Call Your Name.”

Brother Chico joined him for an impromptu sampling of Chico’s breakout record “Iggin Me,” and he stayed in tow to trade a few verses with big brother for “I Like It.”

The show ended with an ode to the Boogie Down Bronx with a Nuyorican-flavored version of “Rhythm of the Night.” Missing noticeably for the true El fan were songs from his catalog of four solo CDs, including the likes of “Love Always,” “Love Me Tonight,” “After the Dance” and “Starlight, Moonlight, Candlelight.”

It’s been widely reported that the life of El DeBarge has been tumultuous as of late, but it ran much deeper, even as he was in the process of establishing his mark as a soloist. “I was on a 22-year drug binge. In fact, if you listened to my album ‘In the Storm,’ you’ll see that I was revealing something deep about myself and was reaching out for help. I reached deep inside of me and pulled out every influence that I ever had emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, and you can hear these changes musically, from the first song through the last.

“I was Sly Stone on one song, George Clinton on the next, Marvin Gaye, the Carpenters, the Isley Brothers, Andre Crouch–all these people who were an important part of who I am as a songwriter and my singing, but they should never take precedent and drown out who I am. I forgot who I was and was trying to find myself. The drugs had me ‘In the Storm.’

“But now I’m in the driver’s seat again, and these influences come up when I need them to in a way that’s tasteful and won’t overshadow me.”

A key component to El finding himself was what may be considered by many to be hitting rock bottom: the stint in which he was imprisoned. It was during that time that he was forced to quit narcotics and the destructive behavior associated with it, and rediscover the power of his gift.

“I was in prison with a variety of cultures and lifestyles and people that performed all kinds of criminal activity,” he said, “but I noticed that music was the common link to everybody. Music is the voice of god, and this second chance to use that gift is not just about me–it’s about the world.

“There are so many people that are looking for and deserve a second chance, and when the album comes out, I want them to embrace it. It’s joyful; you’ll laugh with me, you’ll cry with me. It’s full of harmonies and it’s soulful–it’s the El DeBarge sound.”

Speaking of the new CD, “Second Chance,” El says, “It feels great to know that my music has had an influence on people who are also using music to reach others after all these years. So I’m proud to have a song with 50 Cent [‘Switch Up the Format’], Fabolous [‘5 Seconds’] and a song with Faith Evans called ‘Lay With You.’”

Faith was honored to have been chosen to participate, saying, “I was heavily influenced by his writing and arrangements, and so to be asked to record with him was such an honor! I was so nervous in the recording booth because that’s, like, El DeBarge!”

Another pairing El chose to highlight was a piece written with Babyface. “I wanted to pick up where he and I left off on the ‘Hearts, Mind and Soul’ album. I wasn’t as clear then as I am now, and our musical relationship deserved a second chance.”

“Second Chance” is slated to be in stores on November 30.

Making a reentry into the public’s eye is Eric Benet, who offered a stellar show at the Highline Ballroom. While his new song, “Sometimes I Cry,” is killing the ladies, Benet is prepping for the release of his fifth studio album, “Lost in Time,” on Reprise Records this November, featuring duets with Chrisette Michele, Ledisi, the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and old partner in crime Faith Evans.

“Eric Benet and I have a great chemistry in the studio, since we’ve had a hit record together already,” said Evans. “I remember how he waited for me at a TV show taping to ask me to record ‘Georgy Porgy’ with him back in the day. Since then, whenever he calls me, I’m there!”

Benet will be making another appearance at the 2010 Circle of Sisters, held at the Jacob Javits Center, with Fantasia and Tank on October 30.

I’m out. Holla next week. ‘Til then, enjoy the nightlife.