Oh, what a long night. The 2017 BET Awards, broadcast live on BET from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles Sunday night and hosted by a perpetually game Leslie Jones, clocked in at a full four hours – and not all of those heavily produced, star-studded seconds, minutes and hours flew by. Thankfully, the inspired, audience-approved performances (Migos, Khalid, Bruno Mars, a reunited Xscape) and acceptance speeches (Chance the Rapper, Solange) exceeded the thudding, disappointing moments (we’re looking at you, New Edition and Trey Songz). Mostly, though, it was a reminder of the impossibly high bar set by last year’s show, defined by jaw-dropping tributes to the recently departed Prince and a damn historic turn by a wet-and-wild Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar (“Freedom”). Here, a recap of the super-sized evening’s highlights and low points.
Mars kicked off the night with his trademark zest: his performance of “Perm” was full of funk, humor, sharply coordinated movement, and repeated exhortations to dance. He took the stage flanked by his band, and for the duration of the track, they moved as one unit, mixing the slick choreography of groups like the Time with the brassy blasts of the great 1970s groove bands. Mars’ bassist was especially formidable, reeling off fleet, muscular riffs that drove the group’s side-to-side forays. Two-thirds of the way through “Perm,” Mars brought his band to a sudden stop so he could gently chide the left side of the theater for lackluster audience engagement. As if to prove how much viewers could accomplish from an auditorium chair, Mars and his musicians then sat back down on the beat and continued to dance while seated. Pretty great –EL
This year’s BET Awards may not have been as self-consciously political as last year’s incendiary and inspiring call-to-arms. However, it had its moments, particularly when four actors from Kathryn Bigelow’s forthcoming Detroit movie – Laz Alonso, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, and Jason Mitchell – presented the Centric Award to Solange Knowles. “Our generation has power,” said Mitchell before he and the others paid tribute to black Americans slain by law enforcement, including Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland (who died while in police custody under mysterious circumstances), Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. In light of last week’s recent not guilty verdict for the officer who killed Castile, their homage felt timely. As she accepted her award, Solange thanked BET for its support of past and present “queens” such as Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and Lil Kim, and “showing me those images and letting me know that the sky’s the limit.” -MR
After a low-key-verging-on-soporific rendition of “Congratulations” by Post Malone, Migos put the show back on track by slashing through their hits “T-Shirt” and “Bad and Boujee.” Defying the summer weather outside, the trio donned oversized, feather-stuffed winter coats and rapped “T-Shirt” in an arctic set piece; female dancers stood behind them, impassive and unmoving, as if they were ice sculptures. In contrast, Quavo, Offset and Takeoff’s rapping was at once pliant, declarative and fiercely melodic. The celeb-packed crowd responded in kind: these songs became anthems almost the instant they came out, and everyone in attendance shouted along and danced excitedly – during “Bad and Boujee,” Queen Latifah was spotted rapping the hook. Aside from shedding winter jackets between songs, Migos didn’t go in for onstage theatrics; they were secure in the charisma of their singles. –EL
Trey Songz has been one of R&B’s most consistently appealing stars for over a decade. But lately, Mr. Steal-Yo-Girl has been stuck on a downward trend, a streak underlined by his strangely off-putting BET Awards medley of “Nobody Else But You” and “Monster.” Wearing a gauche black fur, he surrounded himself with plumes of smoke machine mist and scantily-clad dancers while he bragged that “I be throwing this banana all around.” Worse, his voice sounded pitch-y and flat – odd considering that Trey built his reputation on his deftly emotional singing. Was it was badly sexist or simply bad raunch? Either way, it was an awfully tone deaf performance. –MR
Big Sean‘s three-song medley of tracks from his 2017 album I Decided wasn’t flashy or high-concept, but it was effective. He performed the boastful “Sacrifices” on a low-lit stage, then segued into the low-key, high-intensity “Moves,” during which the elegant digital effects backing him up hammered home that track’s message of Big Sean shaking up the world; a phalanx of dancers joined him for “Bounce Back,” echoing his every bounce while letting his rapidfire delivery take center stage. Big Sean’s decision to scale back his staging and let his music do the talking made for one of the night’s more effective showcases. –MJ
Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman is a fiery breakup album full of broadsides against a not-worth-it ex. Her showcase of it on Sunday fell strangely flat, with Blige’s normally powerful voice faltering at crucial emotional points on the searing over-it ballad “Set Me Free” and her A$AP Rocky-assisted version of the album opener “Love Yourself” (the Harlem MC appears on the song’s remix) having a hollowness that couldn’t be salvaged by the skronking brass section. Strength contains some of 2017’s most effective R&B catharsis, but Sunday night’s performance didn’t match the highest points offered by its vitriolic grooves. –MJ
When compared to some of the massive sets that defined this year’s awards, Khalid‘s modestly delightful rendition of his “Location” hit stood out. Consigned to the smallish BETX stage for rising artists, he sang in a clear and expressive voice alongside a crackling band clothed in high school letter jackets, and crafted an oasis of unassuming yet charming pop-inflected R&B amidst the show;s histrionics. With performances like this, Khalid won’t be stuck to “newcomer” status for long. –MR
When Kendrick Lamar made a surprise appearance and saved Future‘s typically lackluster performance of “Mask Off (Remix)” with a flurry of knotted verses, it marked the second year in a row that he has done quietly impressive yeoman’s work. (Last year, he and Beyoncé dazzled with their stellar, rain-soaked rendition of “Freedom.”) Give him credit: while Kanye West couldn’t be bothered to show up and support Mary J. Blige on their “Love Yourself” duet (A$AP Rocky lent his remix verse instead), Kendrick remains the humblest of superstars, ready to support his fellow artists, and steal a bit of the spotlight in the process. –MR
Reunions at award shows are usually a bit hokey, but there was magic in every vocal run uttered by the long-separated Nineties R&B vocal group Xscape. Performing a trio of their biggest hits – “Understanding,” “Who Can I Run To” and “Just Kickin’ It” – each woman had a moment to shine and show up their unfaltering, still awe-inspiring vocal ranges. The reunion couldn’t have come at a better time, given the solo pursuits of the girl group, especially the reality TV success seen by songwriter supreme Kandi Burruss (Real Housewives of Atlanta) and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle (T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle). –BS
Tamar Braxton’s new single “My Man” draws on a long line of fraught, theatrical soul ballads. At the BET Awards, Braxton wore a shiny black dress and stood on a black dais in front of a dark backdrop littered with stars; the minimal set-up focused all eyes on the singer at center stage. Her band heaved and crashed through the predictable swells of “My Man,” and Braxton eventually took control of the performance with a series of well-honed, highly dramatic gestures. First, she hurled her microphone stand behind her and took a few purposeful steps forward. Then she rocketed into a smooth, polished high note. Finally, as “My Man” came to a histrionic close, Braxton squirmed and writhed, nodding her head with such vigor that her blond hair became a furious, kinetic blur. There were dancers moving around Braxton onstage, but thanks to the force of her stagecraft, they were quickly forgotten. –EL
Last year’s BET Awards used a series of tributes to Prince as its tentpoles, a smart positioning move that also resulted in some of the night’s most wondrous, cathartic performances. This year’s “In Memoriam” section was confined to a single segment, which meant that while major artists like Mobb Deep spitter Prodigy and pop-jazz crooner Al Jarreau only got a mention from presenter Tyrese Gibson, rock legend Chuck Berry was merely honored with Roman GianArthur’s brief (yet spunky) version of “Johnny B. Goode.” (The other artist to get a musical tribute was George Michael, whose Wham! smash “Careless Whisper” got remade by saxophonist Kamasi Washington and soul smoothie/fellow Eighties icon El DeBarge.) While Berry’s decades-spanning legacy doesn’t immediately seem as of the moment as Prince’s, a more robust and lengthier tribute could have connected his fiery energy and economical songwriting to current movements in hip-hop and R&B – and shown that he was more than “Johnny.” –MJ
Technical difficulties hampered the evening too many times. The trip-ups started with the onstage conveyor belt: it was supposed to deliver stars to the microphone to present awards in style, but instead it was a frequent, comical source of trouble, leaving several presenters (including Remy Ma, Jamie Foxx and Cardi B) struggling to keep their balance. The foul-ups seemed to increase in frequency as the ceremony wore on. After New Edition accepted their Lifetime Achievement Award, there was a lengthy, awkward silence while they changed into all-white suits to perform a hit medley. And then came a harsh one-two punch: the voiceover introduction for Insecure star Issa Rae welcomed the wrong presenters, forcing host Leslie Jones to intervene, and seconds later, the microphone failed as SZA began her performance. Jones came to the rescue again, contributing a quick stand-up set – “Method Man, let’s go hotbox the Ritz!” – to give the show’s producers cover while they fixed the audio and start over. To SZA’s credit, she was unruffled by the snafus, and when she resumed performing with a working sound-system, she delivered handsome renditions of both “Love Galore” and “The Weekend.” –EL
It should have been the grand finale of the BET Awards: the much-anticipated reunion of New Edition for a much-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. Instead, we were first treated to the bizarre spectacle of Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Ralph and Johnny looking on from the audience while their The New Edition Story impersonators soldiered through a lengthy karaoke session. Yes, the critically acclaimed and highly rated biopic was a lot of fun, but its leads were actors, not singers, and their dance moves and stage bravado couldn’t mask a dearth of musical ability. (The underrated R&B singer Luke James is a notable exception, and his inspired cover of Johnny Gill’s “My, My, My” brought the audience to its feet.) After the real, time-worn New Edition accepted their awards with a few lengthy speeches, the stage cleared for a very awkward few minutes of dead time. When the curtain finally rose, it was the real deal. Bobby Brown, who has little of his voice left, croaked through “Mr. Telephone Man,” then ceded the stage to the others as they crooned “Can You Stand the Rain.” Finally, the actors and the group joined together for a chaotic revival of “If This Isn’t Love.” It was a hot mess, even though the audience didn’t seem to mind. –MR
At several points, the night’s momentum was drained by extended clips from movies that have already been promoted relentlessly for months. First came P. Diddy to plug his Bad Boy documentary Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a film which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Diddy and other members of the Bad Boy family celebrated the movie with a star-studded concert. This promotion wasn’t even a first for an awards show – Diddy had already used the Billboard Music Awards as a platform to plug the film and air its trailer last month. Later in the evening, Jamie Foxx sidetracked the proceedings with a clip from Baby Driver, which is jockeying for position in the summer blockbuster race. This was redundant and unnecessary, though his battle with the teleprompter was one of the night’s most amusing moments. Finally, as the evening was coming to a close (four hours in), Irv Gotti and a cast of actors showed a tedious, overly frothy preview for Tales, an upcoming BET show that he is executive-producing. These extended trailers took the spotlight away from the art and the artists – which the ceremony is supposed to be celebrating – and turned the BET Awards, for a moment, into a commercial. –EL
In her first awards-show hosting gig, Saturday Night Live breakout star Leslie Jones was seemingly game for anything – time-warping so that she could surprise the ’90s version of herself with the news that she was on “the white people In Living Color,” flaunting her wrestling-influenced court style in an ad for her basketball fantasy camp, asking world-beating beatmaker DJ Khaled and R&B up-and-comer Khalid to clarify the differences between their names, comparing her down-there grooming style with Amber Rose’s. It wasn’t flawless, but her high-energy, high-volume performance kept the laughs coming and the show moving.