This year's Essence Festival closed with Lionel Richie and Charlie Wilson, but the fireworks started earlier in the evening.
[Updated] For most of the crowd in the Superdome Sunday for the end of the 20th year of the Essence Festival, the night was about Charlie Wilson and Lionel Richie. For me, the fireworks came early. The night opened with Tamar, who presumes to be on a single-name basis with the world. I, not being part of the world, needed a last name—Braxton—to give her context. She is one of Toni Braxton’s sisters and one of the stars of WEtv’s Braxton Family Values and Tamar and Vince reality shows, and she made me wonder about the effects of being on such a show. A clip from Braxton Family Values introduced the show, and she spoke to the audience with the faux intimacy and coached spontaneity of a cast member in the “confessional” on a show. She passed along homespun advice on relationships in a voice with a hint of valley girl—an affectation aided by her calculatedly ditzy habit of playing with her long hair. As she made an effort to be “real,” she seemed more like a caricature, and her songs were fine but off the rack. She may have a reality show, but I felt like I knew nothing about her at the end of her set.
To make matters worse for Tamar, she was followed by Erykah Badu who couldn’t have been more real. Her songs had the kind of honest precision that Braxton likely couldn’t imagine, including the confessions in “Me,” updated for the changes in her life since she released the song in 2008:
This year I turned 36, 46
Damn it seems it came so quick
My ass and legs have gotten thick, yeah
It's all me
But everything about her set was unique to her. In one three minute stretch, she dropped more F-bombs than I’d heard in the entire rest of Essence, starting with “Damn, where all the fucking people at?” In fact, they were filing in, and Badu had a strong crowd by mid-way through her set.
Her personal rhythms shaped the songs and the set, so “Me” felt largely improvised, and she interrupted another song to joke about her failing eyesight. After getting contacts, she said, “the first thing I saw is that my car's dirty as a muthafucka.” The domestic details added up to something meaningful and noble when framed by Badu’s jazz/soul swing, and a strong thread of sympathy and empathy for women shone through as clearly as her own eccentricity. Still, her generosity of spirit made Tamar seem so much smaller in contrast.
- Badu’s set began with a big surprise when emcee for the weekend Nephew Tommy brought out comedian Dave Chappelle, who came to Essence to introduce Badu. He kept the moment tight and about her, pausing only to let photographers take pictures of him and to goof on one photographer. “There’s one guy here with a Polaroid. He must be here from Jet.” Then he announced, “I don’t use the word ‘love’ loosely, but I truly do love this woman. I love her work, I love her spirit, and I’m here tonight to share that love with you.”
- New Orleans' singer August Alsina released his debut album, Testimony, on Def Jam earlier this year, and he inspired one of the longest lines of the weekend to get in to his superlounge show. Inside, the squealing at every utterance said he's a heartthrob, more than his videos would suggest. He introduced his hit "I Luv This Shit," saying that people in the industry said radio wouldn't play it and no one would buy it. If that's true, those people should be fired.
- Jazz was once a meaningful part of the Essence Festival, but in recent years it has almost entirely disappeared. Houston’s Robert Glasper was an adventurous alternative to Charlie Wilson as he played a hybrid more than a fusion of jazz, funk, rock, and R&B in the sense that nothing was diminished in the process. Like Christian Scott and Jonathan Batiste, Glasper’s negotiating a place for jazz outside the venues and contexts that limit its reach. Sunday, there were stretches that required a more genuine engagement from the audience, but nothing in his band’s version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” felt like a concession or condescension. He heard it as a point on a continuum and not far removed from the rangy Fender Rhodes solo passage that emerged from it, played over droning organ chords and an aggressive, pushing drum pattern that deliberately refused to swing.
- Following Charlie Wilson at Essence is hard work. If Mary J. Blige is the face of the festival’s emphasis on female empowerment, then Wilson is the face of old school, not in the songs themselves but in the values his songs embrace. He’s soulful. He’s playful. He’s lived, learned and embraced his maturity, but not at the expense of a good time. He understands that stage time is show time, and he’s always working it. He knows that people are connecting to him, not images on a video screen or visual spectacle, so he makes everything about him. Because of that and his ending time—in the 10 p.m. hour—for many he’s the last act of Essence, and in the past New Edition and Earth, Wind & Fire became unofficial afterparties for the festival, more a last call for those who couldn’t get enough than the end of the festival proper. Wilson had that effect to a degree on Sunday night, but it’s a tribute to Richie’s catalogue of hits that he held much larger percentage of the crowd than many did previously. For more on Richie, see my coverage of his set for USA Today.
Saturday night at Essence, with Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Ledisi and more
My review of Mary J. Blige for The New Orleans Advocate
Friday night at Essence, with Prince, Nile Rodgers, and Janelle Monáe
Updated 3:18 p.m.
Photos by Erika Goldring were added to the file after its initial posting.