By Danny R. Johnson
Jazz and Pop Music Critic
LOS ANGELES – The 16th Annual BET Awards took over the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on June 26, and featured a mix of pop, rap and R&B A-listers. Dynamic performances from Beyoncé, Usher, Maxwell, Desiigner and more gave the show high expectations that never disappointed! Though the shadow of Prince’s passing gave the broadcast a somewhat subdued airing, there were still much to celebrate. Here are my TOP 7 of the best things from the 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. By Danny R. Johnson
Jazz and Pop Music Critic
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 25), 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.”
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.