Kendrick Lamar and Mariah Carey were memorable for different reasons, but the artists I now want more from played the festival's superlounges.

jidenna photo
Jidenna

If you weren’t in the Superdome or the Convention Center this weekend, the story of Essence Festival was #closedforessence. A photo of a sign in Walk-Ons’ door that announced that the bar was closed for repairs started the meme as the timing, along with the history of bars and restaurants closing during the Essence Festival and Bayou Classic weekends, made the closure suspicious. It turned out that Walk-Ons had real plumbing problems that spilled raw sewage on the floor prompted the closure, and it was open for business before Essence was over. I heard secondhand that Domenica was also closed for genuine repairs. 

If that story missed you, you might have seen the report that Essence outdrew Jazz Fest which prompted a lengthy Facebook conversation about how that could be possible. Keith Spera questioned the numbers—some of his questions could be asked of any attendance figures—but his big picture takeaway that it’s unlikely 450,000 people attended the  Mercedes Benz Superdome and Convention Center last weekend is probably right. Equally true is that even if you round down the numbers, Essence is clearly one of the biggest festivals in New Orleans. 

Essence’s relative lack of impact on the city’s conversation is understandable. Many of the festival’s biggest names chart are urban adult contemporary artists, and that’s a sound that seems to speak almost solely to African Americans. People may know the names Maxwell, Charlie Wilson, Ciara, and Tyrese, but could they name three songs? Could they name one? Parts of the Essence lineup cross over to broader audiences—Mariah Carey, Kendrick Lamar, Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy Records family reunion—but even on nights in the past when Prince and Beyoncé headlined, the audience was more than 90 percent African American. What happens at Essence stays at Essence for much of the city. I don’t know if that’s a function of ticket price or fear of a Black planet—I had someone honestly ask me how African-American audiences would feel about white people at their festival—but it has come to be one of my favorites of the local festivals, one where I get the big show experience at times, then the SXSW-like sense of discovery at others.

Kendrick Lamar, for example, proved himself to be one of the boldest live artists working today on a grand level. Last year, he played the closing slot to the faithful who stayed to the end and made the Superdome feel small by drawing everybody’s attention the space right in front of him. Sunday night in the penultimate slot, he played a commanding, authoritative set to 20-30,000 people. The ‘70s jazz funk elements that were part of his sound last year were stripped out in favor of a harder rocking band that bordered on heavy metal at times. It gave his music muscle and, surprisingly, his vocals clarity. There was simply more room for his voice in the mix.

Lamar was clearly in control of his show and believed in it, even when the audience wasn’t sure. He vibed with his band, running some lines before rolling into songs, and a 15-minute stretch that ended with “Zulu Complexion” tested the audience’s energy and attention, but Lamar’s next half-hour felt urgent and inevitable. Somehow, it seemed obvious from the first notes of “King Kunta” that it would lead to “i,” and that would lead to “Alright,” which landed with the anticipation of a national anthem. The set’s sheer force made Lamar feel less three-dimensional than he has the last few times I’ve seen him, but it was also an impressive assertion of his place in the musical world today.

Essence is generally proudly old school, which aesthetically aligns it with Jazz Fest in its reliance on good singing and good playing. That’s particularly the case on the main stage, where Maxwell and Mariah Carey headlined Friday and Saturday nights. Maxwell is a smooth lover man, but his performances often leave me with the suspicion that he knows his way around the World of Warcraft more than he lets on. It’s partly the eccentricity of his sets, which flow without an obvious build, and partly the enthusiasm with which he shouted out Snapchat after he took a picture of the crowd to post as they were filing out. The photo might have been a little embarrassing because “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” sounded like his closer as he jammed it out after “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.” With the clock striking 1 a.m., people figured they’d seen the show and began to leave during the final choruses, only to have Maxwell slow things back down again for “Pretty Wings.” That ended his set. 

Mariah Carey kept the crowd waiting a half-hour, but that didn’t diminish the affection that fans had for her. Others more moved than I was by her vocals, and found her compelling when she began circumnavigating the notes. I heard her squeak out a few dolphin cries at one point, but her closing “We Belong Together” tied her vocal talents to genuine emotion and had the sort of impact I hoped for from the set. 

By that point, she had lost much of the once-enthusiastic crowd with three energy-killing breaks for costume changes, during which time her DJ resorted to the same kind of crowd work that rapper and emcee Doug E. Fresh used to keep the crowd hyped while people waited for her to come on. Throughout, Carey cared more about the show of emotions, musicality and sexuality than the real deal. Each stage outfit screamed “Playboy Mansion,” and her all-male dance team had six-packs cut so deep that their abdomens appeared to have drainage canals. Still, the show wasn’t sexy because Carey and the dancers never seemed like they wanted to bed each other or the someone in the audience. They settled for looking like the people they think you’d want to bed.

My assumption is that the main stage programming with an emphasis on such old school artists as Charlie Wilson and New Edition speaks to the Essence reader as she is, while the superlounge schedules have a more aspirational quality. Who would Essence like its readers to be? Who would they like to be? This year had an international flair with Estelle, Daley, The Brand New Heavies, Little Simz, and Lady Leshurr representing club music in England, while Phuzekhemisi, Nduduzo Makhathini, and Zakes Bantwini repped Durban, South Africa. Bantwini posed interesting questions because the circular musical and lyrical nature of his “Wasting My Time” invited me to hear the song as angry and obsessive, but his relentless energy and seemingly good-time performance fought off any emotional darkness, even as he was concerned with a woman’s lies. I had to wonder if the circular musical quality I heard and/or the upbeat performance style was culturally based, and that the song wasn’t as obsessive as I thought it might be. Or, Bantwini’s performance might have been angrier than it seemed. Whatever, I liked the song and would have stayed for more if there wasn’t so much to see and hear. 

Lady Leshurr is a rapper from Birmingham, England, and British rap is always fascinating because it developed without the American obsession with hardness and realness. As a result, it’s often playful. I wish I’d have seen Little Simz who is less so, but Lady Leshurr leaned heavily on her Queen’s Speech EP from earlier this year as she talked about such hard-hitting issues as chapped lips and bad breath. Over spare electronic backing tracks, she gleefully yelped, barked and spelled out her lines in an accent that reflected her Brummie and Jamaican roots. “CRISPEH! CRISPEH BACONN,” Leshurr shouted good naturedly while dancing and working the crowd. She was of my Essence winners, and I checked her out on Soundcloud after the show.

Another winner for me was Jidenna, who reflected a contemporary urbanity. He’s part of Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Arts Society, as is St. Beauty, who also played an Essence superlounge. The Wondaland Arts Society was in the house, with members of Deep Cotton on hand for St. Beauty, and Monae walked out of the wings, across the stage, and off on the other side of the stage during Jidenna’s set. The Wondaland crew as a whole are engaged in a compelling examination of blackness, one that is clearly involved in fashion, an expansive set of musical roots, and a sense of humor that can range from puns to dada. Jidenna is a lover man, and his “Knickers” plays a smart game with the word the title sounds like over a cool, electronically swinging track. In his hand, the lyrics and the play on words combine to call for his people to come together. When he performed it at Essence, he was joined onstage by a someone in a Vietnamese dragon or water buffalo costume who just stood there, occasionally stretching the water buffalo’s neck. I listened to everything on Spotify by Jidenna on the drive home the night of his set.

The Internet’s opening night set was similarly compelling and also booked for an open-minded Essence reader. The band led by former Odd Future member Syd tha Kyd played a bewitching set based on classic soul/jazz values, with the marshmallow-y sound of an electric piano at the heart of many songs. Following R&B singer Tweet, the contrast was stark as she made sure everybody knew she could sing, while Syd didn’t go for frills in her vocals or T-shirt-and-overalls wardrobe. When in doubt, she sang more softly, making everything sound intimate, even when the sing-along moment in the chorus of “Just Sayin’” was on the line, “You fucked up.” Syd played a fascinating game with the audience, going demure despite her Mohawk and casual clothes, but because of that, songs clearly had emotional stakes, and when she opened up to show how big her voice could be, the moments had impact. At the same time, the band was true to its street roots. There were 30 percent more “fuck”s than usual for an Essence set, and the band’s relationship to its genre felt like a matter still under negotiation. The Internet also ended true to who Syd is, concluding with the longing song “Gabby,” which Syd dedicated to Gabrielle Union.

In some cases, the audiences were the readers Essence hoped they were. The Internet played to a good crowd, and Robert Glasper, who walks the electronic/jazz/funk/rock line played Sunday night for an engaged, enthusiastic audience that clearly knew him and his material. On the other hand, Judith Hill’s powerful, funky set deserved a larger hearing. Hill competed on The Voice in 2013, appeared in the Academy Award-winning documentary on backing vocalists, Twenty Feet from Stardom. She was in the news recently when it came out that she was dining with Prince on his plane home from Atlanta that had to make an emergency landing after his medical emergency. Prince produced her 2015 album, Back in Time, and her Essence performance suggested either his influence or the places where their ideas about showmanship overlapped. “Turn Up” was, like many Prince jams, an example of funk as its own reward. When Hill sat down at her piano in the middle of the song for a quick, percussive solo, the change of sonic textures was familiar and effective. 

Two of the album’s slower songs, “Angel in the Dust” and “Beautiful Life,” opened up in life-affirming ways in concert. She has said that the former was about Prince, but it was easy to hear the latter as addressing him as well. Hill briefly acknowledged that the tour has been hard in the wake of his passing, but their relationship was the set’s subtext. The viewers that didn’t know about their relationship saw a strong, sometimes emotional set with a funky band that included Hill’s mother, father, and guitarist Tony Maiden from ‘70s funk band Rufus.

The bands programmed for a more contemporary version of old school went less well. The Brand New Heavies had the audience and their signature light funk touch for “Can’t Stop,” “Dream on Dreamer,” and “Midnight at the Oasis,” but the band’s issues with the monitor mix metastasized from distracting to toxic, particularly when singer N’Dea Davenport couldn’t stop chewing on the sound engineer responsible for monitor mix—something nobody in the audience heard. Within a few songs, the audience was flat and the band had settled into a sad, lifeless walk through its catalogue. 

At the end of rap group Digable Planets’ “Noise,” Doodlebug (Craig Irving) ad libbed, “We are the future,” and as nice as that thought might be, they’re not and weren’t when they released Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993) and Blowout Comb (1994). At the time, they provided a conscious, culturally rooted alternative to Ice Cube, 2pac, Geto Boys,  Dr. Dre, Ice T, and the gangstas running the hip-hop charts. Digable Planets weren’t alone—1993 also saw releases from Daisy Agers De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest—but it was clear that Scarface references held greater appeal than shout-outs to Monk, Miles and Coltrane. 

Friday night, Doodlebug, Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) and Ladybug (Mary Ann Vieira) still chopped out syllables with clean, rhythmically conscious precision, but without the excitement of a moment when hip-hop was crowded with conflicting voices all envisioning possible directions forward, the songs sounded a little studied and forced. They clearly had their audience, exemplified by a woman in front of me who laid down all of “Pacifics (NY is Red Hot)” from her place in the crowd, using her pointer finger over her head to mark the funky beat she rapped against.  

 For more on Essence, see my coverage for USA Today, which also includes notes on New Edition, the Prince tribute, and more or Mariah.