With A Return to Live Programming, Can the Essence Festival Resume Its Dominance?
After two years of virtual programming, the saints returned to New Orleans’ Caesars Superdome for the Essence Music Festival (now officially the Essence Festival of Culture) with mixed results. Nearly 30 years ago, the Black women’s magazine launched in the early 1970s created a celebration of music that has evolved into far more than a series of concerts with well-recognized brands (longtime sponsors Coca-Cola and Ford, among many others, play pivotal roles in Black consumer outreach).
Peak capitalism aside, the concerts remain a centerpiece and this year, the brand made a conscious attempt to attract younger audiences by adding hip-hop acts that would not have been included in previous lineups, particularly female rappers Nicki Minaj and The City Girls. For the brand that has stood for Black women empowerment, it was a controversial move to embrace women some feel cosign misogynoir. The move, in many ways, distracted from the brand’s past success.
Nicki Minaj’s headlining set Friday night was especially not well-received. While the Barbz were ecstatic to see the female rapper known for her intense delivery and ability to hold her own with male rappers, others were less thrilled. Presumably prompted by low ticket sales for a lineup that included rising Black country star Mickey Guyton and soca acts Kes the Band and reigning king Machel Montano, Fugees leader Wyclef Jean — billed Wyclef and friends — was added alongside veteran rapper Nas. (Dancehall legend Beenie Man was a no-show.)
Wyclef pulled the Essence surprise of the night by bringing out Lauryn Hill, with whom he has a very rocky history, to the stage. Hill, covered from head to toe in an odd outfit delighted fans with impassioned versions of The Score classics “Killing Me Softly,” “How Many Mics,” “Fu-Gee-La,” and “Ready or Not.” To mark 25 years of the Grammy-winning album, the group, minus member Pras Michel, had planned an anniversary tour but quickly abandoned it after barely performing one show, blaming COVID. Audiences also expressed awe that Hill, who has been plagued by chronic lateness, showed up at all. Jean protégé John Forte, who contributed to the Score, was greeted with a lukewarm reception.
After many interruptions in the onstage programming, akin to church announcements and meeting points, Nas took the stage. In one of the best performances of the weekend, the Queens rapper ran through several hits, including his more commercial efforts like “Oochie Wally” and Black reparations song “You Owe Me” done to a club beat that would disappoint his hardcore fans.
On the Essence stage, however, Nas, whose classic debut album Illmatic quickly put him atop the rap food chain, frequently expressed gratitude for still being alive. His performances of “One Mic” and “Ultra Black,” his most recent and most impactful hit, captivated the audience with only a live band and himself.
Sadly, the same was not true of Minaj, who took the stage after midnight. Despite fans at home blasting Hulu for not streaming the rapper’s show as the service did other sets, Minaj often seemed unsure of her direction onstage. Unlike Nas, Minaj had dancers and attempted a performance more akin to a Vegas-style show with dance numbers and elaborate royal motif production.
For all her flashier numbers, Minaj seemed to be most at home standing alongside DJ Boof rhyming, including her breakthrough verse from Kanye West’s 2010 hit “Monster,” in which fans speculated that she dissed the problematic rapper, calling him a clown.
New Orleans’ own Birdman gave the crowd a lift during her set, though Lil Wayne’s appearance wildly elevated the crowd’s excitement. Minaj, who had three intermissions, featured inexplicable wardrobe changes of her just adding a smock or covering over her existing outfit. While she never quite rebounded with the performance of her massive hits “Super Bass” and “Moment 4 Life,” the Barbz in the audience were supportive of her performance and excited to see her take the stage.
Fans chalked Minaj’s troubled set up to myriad explanations, including a sabotaged wardrobe and not agreeing to let Hulu livestream her set. Given the appearance of veteran female rappers like Lauryn Hill, some Essence Fest faithful bemoaned Minaj’s unwillingness to embrace other female rappers in the genre and continuing to boast of her fading dominance.
Saturday night was a far cry from Friday, with Janet Jackson headlining a sold-out Superdome. Those of major interest taking the stage outside of the pop icon included “Girls Need Love” singer Summer Walker, who performed pregnant, recent Grammy and BET Awards Heaux Tales winner Jazmine Sullivan, and the 78-years-young legendary singer Patti LaBelle, who was joined onstage by multi-hyphenate Debbie Allen who at age 72 served as a dancer for LaBelle’s well-known hit “Lady Marmalade” with her former group.
The crowd was elated at Sullivan’s considerable vocal range, with her first hit single “Bust Your Windows” and her most recent “Pick Up Your Feelings” hitting particularly hard. (Less so for Walker, who delivered a lackluster performance chastised by numerous fest viewers online.) Jackson would later take the stage considerably late after midnight in a body-hugging shimmery one-piece that stopped just under her chin. (Although in years past, she would perform with a bevy of male and female dancers, she opted for only male dancers for her set.)
Although there were complaints about Jackson’s sound not quite being up to par, the crowd was generally in awe of her performance. She ran through a set that included some unexpected tunes like opener “Feedback,” from 2008’s Discipline. She eventually ran through Essence crowd favorites like “The Pleasure Principle,” “Let’s Wait Awhile,” “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” “I Get Lonely,” alongside “Control” and “Nasty Girl.” Just as all the lights had came up and the massive crowd was dispersing, Jackson appeared back onstage, closing out her mostly bouncy set with her game-changing 1989 hit “Rhythm Nation.” Audio problems aside, Jackson showed her professionalism and ability to entertain with an almost family-friendly vibe reflecting her new status as a mother and Muslim influence.
Sunday night was not as full of fireworks as Friday or Saturday. The City Girls’ set was brash yet unpolished. The Roots welcoming of Wu-Tang Clan members Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah alongside Ashanti’s run of hits, including “Always on Time” and “Foolish” while dressed in a provocative onesie, was a nostalgic trip for many. When the Bad Boy group the Lox took the stage, Jadakiss once again displayed why he is one of the best MCs to ever grace a mic.
Still, his stellar performance was nothing compared to the electrifying entrance of Lil Kim on their collective hit “Money, Power, and Respect.” Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn’s Finest also held her own with the classics “Crush on You” and the post-Biggie hit “Lighters Up.” A wardrobe snafu showing her left nipple went largely unnoticed by the in-person crowd as the pioneering female rapper quickly adjusted her clothing upon recognition.
The Isley Brothers — now consisting of brothers Ron Isley and guitarist Ernie Isley — went through a medley of hits, including perennial classics “Between the Sheets,” “Footsteps in the Dark,” and “Summer Breeze,” the latter allowing Ernie to demonstrate his guitar prowess. Closing out the show was another Essence favorite New Edition, which also featured solo hits from Bobby “My Prerogative” Brown, Johnny “My, My, My” Gill, Ralph “Mr. Sensitivity” Tresvant, and “Poison” and “Do Me Baby” trio BBD with Ronnie Devoe, Michael Bivins and Ronnie Devoe. New Edition songs like their 1983 introductory hit “Candy Girl” and closing single “Can You Stand the Rain” was a bit more expected of the longtime music fest and subsequently one of the weekend’s most appreciated sets.
While this return to an in-person effort did not win on all fronts, the big question remains: will this effort be enough for the festival to resume its dominance when artists like Pharrell Williams (Something in the Water) and J. Cole (Dreamville) are curating their own festivals and Essence favorite Mary J. Blige joined forces with Pepsi in May to present Atlanta’s Strength of a Woman fest?