This weekend's Essence Festival was a study in contexts, one of which being loss.

janet jackson photo
Janet Jackson

{Updated] Keeping the fans in the Superdome has been a challenge for the acts that close the Essence Festival, but Janet Jackson didn’t start to hemorrhage audience members until a lengthy mid-set DJ break. That ended with the band playing “Let’s Wait a While” as an instrumental, which fans took as a chance to sing or leave. Still, once she was back onstage and performing, the exodus slowed significantly.

That it did was a tribute to Jackson's charisma and the audience’s love for her because the set’s energy dwindled noticeably as she went through a stretch of album cuts and lesser singles. When she performed “Got til It’s Gone” from The Velvet Rope, she stopped to look at the rear projection screen, which featured a recorded Q-Tip delivering his feature.

Finally, she addressed the elephant in the room and mentioned the passing of her father, Joe Jackson, who died June 27. She has talked in the past about their difficult relationship, and she chose her words carefully when she tearfully remembered asking her brothers if she should cancel the Essence date, the first she played since his death, just as her Essence set in 2010 was her first since Michael’s death. Finally, she announced, “If it wasn't for his enormous strength, we would not have the success,” and concluded, “My father was a great man.” Then she played “Together Again” for him. 

Friday

Friday night, Essence Festival solved a problem, and Jazz Fest could take a tip. On their own, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu are mid-evening performers at Essence. Neither has enough drawing power individually to headline, but together with The Roots, they were a compelling, on-brand headline act that helped to produce a sell-out. As Jazz Fest deals with signature Acura and Gentilly headliners aging out, this kind of event creation is an alternative to reaching for acts that are awkward fits. 

Admittedly, not every such gig can be run by The Roots, and there are only so many artists who can pull that kind of show together, but the set served as proof of concept.

The Roots were important to the success of the set as they established a musical baseline that unified Badu’s psychedelic soul and Scott’s more studied, urbane, jazz-inflected R&B. They got Badu to be big at times and gave Scott’s explosive voice a grittier context. Black Thought stepped in to break off some bars on occasion, helping both sound more contemporary. (Not an Essence Festival priority, but still …)

The only shortcoming was the set’s structure. The early vocal fireworks and moments of Badu and Scott calling out to one another mid-song made the finale seem obvious and exciting—bring them together for a final duet or two that put them on equal footing. Instead, an unbilled guest, gospel legend Kirk Franklin, finished the show, leaving the title starts and the drama they created behind. Giving the finale to Franklin was a non-sequitur after what came before, redundant after Snoop Dogg’s gospel set, and in a room full of women, it was tone deaf. After two women had a musical conversation for half the set, The Roots and whoever put Franklin on the bill gave a man the last word—two men if you buy the conventional representations of God (#godsplaining?). 

Speaking of Snoop’s gospel set, he started with 20 minutes of fan favorites with a couple of sexy dancing girls and someone in a dog suit. Then, he turned the show over to his collaborators on Snoop Dogg Presents Bible of Love completely. He didn’t make an audible contribution beyond bringing John P. See, The Clark Sisters, Rance Allen, and Fred Hammond to the stage. At one point, Hammond said he had defended working with Snoop, saying that he had looked into his heart. Maybe he should have looked into his Spotify page, where Snoop has a new track, “Stay Fuckin’ wit Chy’all,” which doesn’t sound like a candidate for the Bible of Love follow-up.

Saturday

Essence Festival is a space where, for three nights, Drake, Ye, Pusha and Adonis aren’t part of the pop culture conversation. That doesn’t mean Essence holds the line against hip-hop like it once did, though. For a long time, Essence understandably didn’t want to give its stage to men who used language and embodied attitudes that demeaned African-American women. In recent years though, hip-hop is more a part of the festival in part because once they tried, organizers could find emcees who shared their values. They also realized that hip-hop is the music its audience parties to. 

Saturday night, it featured a “Ladies First” set that promised hip-hop with Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, MC Late and more, and it eventually got there. First, we had to learn a lesson. Latifah can do many things, but that doesn’t mean she should. She sang “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “California Dreaming,” “Poetry Man,” doing all of them justice but the goodwill she has earned over the years and more specifically through Girls Trip carried the first half-hour. 

When she brought out Brandy, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, and Remy Ma to take the show to a more specific old school, the energy went up. The crowd was respectful to Dana Owens, song stylist, but they came for the Queen and late ‘80s, Native Tongues-adjacent rap and black pop. Missy Elliott’s entrance supercharged the Superdome as she played 10 minutes of the set everybody hoped to get when she played in 2015. She couldn’t get out of her own way that night, trying to do too much, frittering away her time and confusing the audience in the process. Saturday, she rolled through “Get Ur Freak On,” “Pass the Dutch,” and “Lose Control” and let her songs and her star power shine.

Salt-N-Pepa then made an unannounced appearance to perform “Whatta Man,” “Shoop” and “Push It,” and in context, they and Missy felt powerful. They weren’t nostalgia acts at Essence; they along with the other women on bill gave women some of the first chances to see themselves in the hip-hop story. When Latifah brought out Monie Love for “Ladies First,” it should have ended the set but Latifah took the set one song further for “UNITY.” It’s a less interesting song, and another omnipresent context kicked in. With a president using the word to refer only to what he tries to do with his base, “unity” seems devalued and the song’s sentiment felt dated and simplistic as a response. “Ladies First” carried more weight.

Sunday

The outside music briefly poked its nose into Essence during Big Freedia’s packed sets Sunday night in a superlounge. Midset, she performed a medley of Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Drake’s “Nice for What” because she appears on both tracks. The moment was intriguing because hearing her commandeer those tracks, it was easier to imagine Freedia as a pop star and not a textural element flown in to bolster other people’s pop hits. 

Freedia was one of the few acts who filled a superlounge to capacity. Idris Elba didn’t do it for his DJ set, though he certainly drew well. On Friday night, H.E.R. caused roadblocks in the hallways from fans trying to get to see her, and on Saturday, Ella Mai got the same love. Ella Mai also had the song of Essence in “Boo’d Up,” which I heard four times during the weekend not including my own homework listens. Twice (at least), DJ D Nice played it between sets on the main stage, a woman sang it in front of me before a set, and Hi Five incorporated it into their spot during the Teddy Riley celebration of New Jack Swing. The song has proven to be pretty malleable, as a search of Soundcloud reveals, and a remix with Nikki Minaj and Quavo has given it fresh currency. Unfortunately, I missed her live version because I was among those shut out. 

Janet Jackson’s set was the news Sunday night in part because she addressed her father’s death onstage, but also because she course-corrected from the dark, disconcerting tone of her 2010 set. On Sunday, she seemed playful and in relentlessly good spirits, so much so that her smile and upbeat lean-back began to feel like masks. It looked like she was working hard at being happy, just as she said she was in the open letter she wrote for the recent issue of Essence. She certainly didn’t linger too long over the lighter moments in her catalogue, whipping through many of her hits in a series of medleys in the first half-hour. 

Jackson can’t escape darkness though because it’s written into so much of her music. Because of that, the show felt like one designed to get fans see her as an album-oriented artist who dramatizes the pains and joys of mature relationships, and not as a pop star making hits to fill the dance floor. Certainly that was what the show did best, and the number of times she opted for deep cuts says she whatever she did was by design. She opted to open the show with the Rhythm Nation-era b-side “The Skin Game,” playing it in concert for the first time (according to Setlist.fm), and another eight songs haven’t been on her setlists since 2016. “Feels So Right” from 2001’s All for You also made its live debut Sunday. 

“On to something” doesn’t mean the idea was fully formed though, or formed so fully that it communicated clearly. The stretch of her show from the DJ interlude through to talking about her father didn’t entirely work, but it said she’s on to something. The audience ready to dance or leave stopped and paid attention as Jackson drew them into scenes of lovers’ violence and friends playing together. Then, she got back to hits with “If,” “Scream,” and “Rhythm Nation” and finished back in the odd space so many of her songs inhabit, one where she’s playing defense in a form—the pop single—that’s almost by definition outgoing. 

In 2010, I thought her show was evidence of the high cost of growing up a Jackson, and Sunday’s show didn’t change that feeling. She didn’t seem as damaged, but her reality has to be complicated. It’s hard to appreciate the life any star lives, and that’s even more true with Jacksons. It occurred to me during “Scream” that she is now 52, older than Michael was when he died at 50. 

The serious-minded set and the good times performance didn’t match the opening video with blood, swastikas, and calls for justice, but big social statements have never been any Jackson’s strength. But her “State of the World” show—that’s the name of the tour—was clearly a response dark clouds, ones she has lived through as well as ones she sees forming. Her effort to find that response in her existing songs was intriguing, even if only semi-successful, and her smile and bounce may have been the way to make her set work for the Essence audience.

Updated at 2:36 p.m.

This story has been updated to include coverage of the whole weekend at Essence.