The 16th annual BET Awards took over the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles last night, featuring a mix of pop, rap and R&B A-listers.
Though the chaotic state of America and the shadow of Prince’s passing gave the broadcast a somewhat somber air, there were still electric performances from Beyoncé, Usher, Maxwell, Desiigner and more. Here are 20 of the best and worst things from the network’s big night.
Best: Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar Make a Splash
It’s impossible to have a conversation about pop in 2016 without Beyoncé coming up, and the BET Awards honored this fact by having her and her phalanx of dancers get into formation while excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech opened the show. B and her dancers launched into a version of “Freedom” that was choreographed on a pool, creating an eye-popping visual that matched the Lemonade track’s agitated intensity. When Kendrick Lamar showed up with a tweaked version of his on-record verse, the already-high energy quotient kicked into overdrive. The sight of Beyoncé and Lamar, two of music’s most prominent, vocal and political figures, dancing fiercely yet with a keen sense of purpose as water splashed around them jolted the night into high gear and provided the first of many must-see moments.
Best: Prince Tribute Number One: Erykah Badu and Bilal
Erykah Badu and Bilal performed the first of four Prince tributes during the night, and neither disappointed. Looking resplendent in a white fur coat and Kangol hat, Badu radiated cool as she sang the Purple One’s quirky Joni Mitchell homage “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Bilal followed with a fairly respectful and somewhat staid delivery of “The Beautiful Ones” until he reached the climax of the Purple Rain centerpiece … and promptly went nuts. “Do you want him? Or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you!” he sang. Evoking Prince’s primal, heavenly scream seemed to set him off as he ripped off his shirt and writhed on the floor in ecstatic release.
Best: Prince Tribute Number Two: Stevie Wonder, Tori Kelly and Jennifer Hudson
Stevie Wonder, may be the only living person who can play on Prince’s level. While he did play it a little safe by covering the bubbly pop song “Take Me With U,” he did the whole thing with his own iconic inflection and feel. Tori Kelly kindly provided harmonies and added some pyrotechnics. Then Jennifer Hudson showed up to give “Purple Rain” some Broadway bombast, one of the most goosebump-raising moments of the evening. All the rough edges of the song were sanded off, all the rawness replaced with seasoned perfection. But this wasn’t a negative: It made a rock song feel like a national standard. Hudson hit those high notes with inhuman precision and kept vamping when the song was done, singing her way off stage so that moment felt like it lasted long after the tune was over.
Best: Prince Tribute Number Three: Janelle Monáe
Prince embraced the future-funk stylings of Janelle Monáe early in her career; at New Orleans Jazz Fest in April, she talked about how he once called up the head of BET to lobby for her inclusion on an awards-show bill. (She didn’t specify whether or not the show in question was the 2010 BET Awards, where she tore through “Let’s Go Crazy” to Prince’s delight.) On Sunday, she decided to celebrate Prince’s playful side, performing a medley of his more jubilant hits – the crazed “Delirious,” the flirtatious “Kiss,” the effervescent “Pop Life” and the pulse-quickening “I Would Die 4 U” – while clad in a white lace getup that recalled his outlandish Purple Rain-era costumes while paying tribute to his rear-end-exposing outfit from the 1991 Video Music Awards.
Best: Prince Tribute Number Four: Sheila E.
Consider Sheila E.’s brilliant closing performance as righteous payback for Linda Perry’s idiotic comments that Prince’s best friend wasn’t “relevant” enough to appear at the Billboard Music Awards last May. She kicked off a seven-minute medley by smashing the drums during “Housequake,” then jammed through “Erotic City,” “Let’s Work,” “U Got the Look” and “A Love Bizarre,” while flanked by a horn section and dancers, including Prince’s former wife, Mayte Garcia. By the time her tour de force turned to “The Glamorous Life” and “America,” Jerome Benton of the Time was sashaying right next to her. She pummeled drums, strummed a guitar and slid across the stage just like Prince at the 1985 Grammy Awards. It might be the closest thing we’ll see to one of the late funk master’s kaleidoscopic performances ever again.
Best: Jesse Williams Delivers a Call to Action
If you haven’t heard of Grey’s Anatomy actor and social justice advocate Jesse Williams, who has already gathered kudos as this generation’s Harry Belafonte, then consider his stunning acceptance speech for BET’s Humanitarian Award as a wake-up call. “This award is not for me. It’s for the real organizers across the country: the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents … that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand,” he said. “The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.” Suddenly, he began sounding less like an actor picking up a trophy than a man exhorting us to action, whether it was calling out the police for killing people of color, like Tamir Rice (who would have turned 14 on June 25th), calling out Americans for “gentrifying” black genius, or declaring: “Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
Worst: ‘Hamilton’ Gets a Trap Makeover
After the incomparable gale force of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar kicked off the show, anything that followed in their wake was bound to disappoint. Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson of Blackish gamely kicked off a long night of hosting duties by performing a gentle parody of Hamilton, rapping current hits like Desiigner’s “Panda,” OT Genasis’ “Cut It” and the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” to increasingly corny effect. Then singer-songwriter Anthony Hamilton showed up stage because, you know, his last name is Hamilton. He performed a too-short moment from his deathless lament “Comin’ Where I Come From” … and then stuck a musket between his legs.
Best: Usher Remains the Awards Show King
Usher is still the secret weapon of every award show and he knows it – did you notice that the broadcast looked like it turned to film when he showed up? His dedication to choreography dates back to the days when Janet Jackson made videos that looked like they were shot in one take. He’s an entertainer that would have been stunning at any point in the last 60 years of television. He treats every awards show performance like he’s making a music video, and her performance of “No Limit” was no different, complete with a team of dudes throwing other dudes and a Young Thug cameo.
Best: Maxwell Performs a Referendum on Modern R&B
One of the better stories in R&B this summer is the return of the reclusive Maxwell, whose blackSUMMERSnight comes out on Friday. Walking out under an umbrella’s cover, he performed the simmering track “Lake by the Ocean,” showcasing his precisely calibrated heat and silky charisma. As “Lake” faded, he went into Prince’s bereft “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which he transformed into a referendum of sorts on R&B. He switched the opening lyric to the mournful, “It’s been seven hours and 66 days since you took your music away,” but later lyrics were more pointed about pop’s Prince-shaped void: “It’s been so lonely without you here, unlike these records that don’t have no soul,” he sang at one point.
Best: Desiigner Explodes
There’s not exactly any guarantee that Desiigner, a performer with literally one song on Spotify, will ever be on television ever again. So he made the absolute most of his moment. “Panda” is, at best, a barely there trifle, so he went completely punk rock with it: Barely rapping the lyrics, excitedly running in the aisles, doing Jim Carrey-style mugging, yelling the one word chorus, moonwalking and throwing the mic up in the air like At the Drive-In. His DJ did more scratching than the non-existent DJ for old-school hero Fat Joe. Desiigner basically treated a national cable broadcast like a house party.
Worst: Alicia Keys Goes DIY
When Alicia Keys was initially foisted on the public, her accompanying press touted her prodigy status – she started studying piano at a young age, and her debut, Songs In A Minor, reveled in her classical upbringing. On Sunday, though, she decided to switch things up for the dreamy “In Common,” commanding loop pedals and playing barre chords while gutting out a vocal performance that sounded labored at times. Even her sparkly red jacket gave off an “opening set at a DIY venue’s Tuesday night all-ages showcase” feel. While the amateurism was definitely a change-up for someone whose early press presented her as a 21st-century Mozart, its gritted-teeth nature made it a bit tough to sit through.
Worst: Spike Lee’s Purple Suit
The utmost respect to Spike Lee for honoring Prince from head to toe, but his purple suit and top hat combo definitely looked more like Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka reboot than anything of the fedora/suit combos the purple one enjoyed in his later years.
Best: The BET Awards Dump Trump
With the night’s tone effectively set by Beyoncé and Kendrick’s incendiary performance of “Freedom,” artists decided to speak up about the upcoming election and the importance of casting a vote. Some of the night’s featured celebrities were oblique about how those votes should sway, falling just shy of mentioning presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump by name: “I’m really not political, but it’s serious out here, and for those that think, ‘Oh, he’s not gonna win,’ think again,” said Best Actress winner Taraji P. Henson. Lifetime Achievement Award winner Samuel L. Jackson cautioned against getting “tricked like they got tricked in London.” Co-host Tracee Ellis Ross slyly couched her Presidential endorsement in a championing of her single-woman status, crowing, “So basically, technically, what that means is I will be determining the next election. Welcome to the White House, Hillary Clinton!” The most pointed statement, perhaps, came from Usher; his “Don’t Trump America” button-down, which he wore during his performance of “No Limit,” was one of the night’s hottest fashion items.
Worst: Black Lives Matters Jokes as a Punchline
After Stevie Wonder, Tori Kelly and Jennifer Hudson delivered a moving rendition of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall showed up to promote their forthcoming potboiler, When the Bough Breaks, and introduce Video of the Year. Stale banter about men who don’t pay for proper dates ensued. “#RealDatesMatter,” said Hall. “Don’t you mean #AllDatesMatter?” responded Chestnut. It’s a Black Lives Matter joke! Get it?
Best: MC Lyte Cold Rocks the Party
In a year where artists like Desiigner and Lil Yachty are working in quiet mumbles and murmurs, it was a sip of fresh cappuchino to hear MC Lyte shouting the nominees in her stentorian, circa 1989 style. Her voice is still rolling down your neck and pounding on your shoulders – L.L. better watch his back because someone might be coming for that award show crown. The fact that she’s not joining Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah at the Vh1 Hip-Hop Honors is an absolute travesty, but hopefully a BET check makes up for it.
Worst: Fat Joe and Remy Ma Go Grindhouse
It was good to see two-decade-plus Bronx vet Fat Joe and his onetime Terror Squad protégé Remy Ma earn a hard-won moment of redemption with the surprise comeback anthem “All The Way Up.” But what was up with the Japanese swordsmen and geisha dancers that surrounded them on stage, turning the performance into a bizarre interpretation of an Abel Ferrara flick?
Best: Anderson Paak Drums Up Some Attention
The night’s two sponsored emerging-artist slots were a study in contrasts. German singer-songwriter Bibi Bourelly’s inert version of “Riot” was a bit too studied, eschewing electricity for emotion that didn’t quite translate. In contrast, R&B up-and-comer Anderson Paak, backed by the Free Nationals, ran with the opportunity, throwing himself so fully into the popping funk of “Come Down” that he even managed to shoehorn a showcase for his formidable drum skills into a brief, yet utterly kinetic performance.
Worst: Bryson Tiller Stiffs the Crowd
By the time Bryson Tiller took the stage, the Louisville, Kentucky upstart had already claimed two trophies for his Gold-certified debut, Trapsoul. And as he dramatically emerged on an elaborately appointed stage overwhelmed by smoke, expectations were high for what should have been a breakout moment. But as the audience stood up, swayed and sang along to his hits “Exchange” and “Don’t,” Tiller seemed oddly disengaged and wandered around stiffly. The BET Awards clearly want to mint him as this year’s brightest new star, but he’ll have to do more than just give mechanical performances if he wants to become the next R&B heartthrob – and win over skeptics who dismiss him as the umpteenth iteration of Drake.
Best: Chloe x Halle Get Famous
The duo Chloe x Halle, made up of sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey, was one of the first signees to Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, having garnered the pop multi-hyphenate’s attention with a bare-bones cover of her 2013 track “Pretty Hurts.” In April, Parkwood released Sugar Symphony, a self-produced showcase for their slightly tweaked take on R&B, and on Sunday night they made their live TV debut. While some observers scratched their heads at the prominent spot given to a relatively unknown act, Chloe x Halle rose to the occasion: The pair, who will be opening the European leg of Beyoncé’s Formation Tour, dazzled with a confident performance of “Drop,” which showcases their keen interplay through skeletal beats and dreamy lyrics.Bibi Bourelly
Worst: D’Angelo Is a No-Show
In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s telecast, BET touted D’Angelo’s involvement in the night’s Prince tributes – understandable, since in the wake of the pop enigma’s death, he provided one of the lovelier homages when he performed a somber version of “Sometimes It Snows in April” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. But as the night went on, the singer’s absence became noticeable, and was ultimately confirmed when ?uestlove tweeted, “Not gonna happen” to an inquiring D’Angelo fan about three hours into the telecast. His presence would have added to the celebration, showing how Prince had influenced some of the present day’s brightest stars.