Prince was the hallmark of Sunday night’s BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The late musician was honored with an array of tributes from new artists, established musicians, Prince’s peers and his biggest fans sprinkled throughout the ceremony.
The Roots and Erykah Badu kicked things off in the bubble bath, with funky Sign O’ the Times gem “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Bilal followed Badu, embracing her in the first bars of “The Beautiful Ones.” The young singer nailed Prince’s galvanic vocal turns, his sobering falsetto. He even writhed on the floor of the stage as if purple ran through his veins.
Comedian-actor Dave Chappelle, who famously impersonated Prince on Chappelle’s Show introduced the Roots and Badu. Prince was reportedly a fan of Chappelle’s classic skit. “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” was viewed nearly 600,000 times immediately following the singer’s death, according to Billboard.
Stevie Wonder and Tori Kelly continued the groove with the night’s most upbeat spot. In complementing purple-accented outfits, the duo harmonized on the lilting Prince-and-Apollonia jam “Take Me With U.”
As Wonder and Kelly left the stage, Jennifer Hudson emerged. Wearing a pearly, hooded dress, Hudson expectedly stole the night with her stunning ability to turn someone else’s words into her own confessional. The singer-actress’ heart-quaking “Purple Rain” resulted in a standing, swaying and teary, ovation.
R&B singer Maxwell performed another powerful Prince ballad, giving “Nothing Compares 2 U” a brawny, orchestral treatment. “It’s been 7 hours and 66 days since you took your music away,” Maxwell sang emotionally, updating the song’s lyrics. “I went to the record store, Apple, Spotify too, and they told me ‘Boy you’d better try to make some music, which you can’t do – ’cause Prince is the truth!” Maxwell pivoted into “Nothing” after performing “Lake by the Ocean,” a single from his forthcoming album BlackSUMMERS’Night.
Firebrand Janelle Monae, who opened her recent tour sets with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” was the next tribute. Her performance was as energetic as it was personal. She ran through a medley of “Delirious” to “Kiss” to “Pop Life” to “I Would Die 4 U” with preternatural zest and flow. She was the closest of any of the performers to actually watching Prince, and for that, Monae’s room-shaking celebration felt the most poignant of all. “I love you, Prince,” the singer said before dropping to her knees.
The finale, headed by Prince’s longtime collaborator Sheila E., packed over 10 songs in a 10-minute medley. Accompanied by Prince’s backing singers Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorello, the band stomped back in time through Sign O’ the Times jam “Housequake” then into 1984’s “Erotic City,” to 1981’s “Let’s Work.” “U Got The Look” peeled into three of Sheila’s Prince-penned songs: “A Love Bizarre,” “The Glamorous Life” and “Soul Salsa.” Sheila was radiant and picked up a purple guitar as “America” led into the triumphant end: Purple Rain‘s “Baby I’m a Star.”
BET’s Prince-heavy ceremony comes a month after the Billboard Music Awards, which featured what many viewed as lukewarm Prince tribute by Madonna, Stevie Wonder and Questlove. The Roots drummer defended Madonna’s “Purple Rain” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” tribute by tweeting: “Every Prince rendition will not be a life-changing orgasmic [e]xperience. Just to SING his work is brave enough” the day after the event. BET also responded to the underwhelming performance by tweeting: “Yeah, we saw that. Don’t worry. We Got You.”
Prince died of an accidental drug overdose on April 21 at age 57. His half brother, Alfred Jackson, attended the BET Awards.