The main stage leans toward the old school as usual, but there is a lot to see in the misnamed superlounges.

janet jackson photo
Janet Jackson, by Solamain Fazel

The Essence Festival starts this weekend, and it remains one of my favorite festivals in New Orleans. It’s a far less punishing way to see many of the acts that play Jazz Fest’s Congo Square Stage, but as they’re meant to be seen—suave, smooth, and not sweating their way through wardrobes that were never intended for the late afternoon Louisiana sun. 

My quick take on Essence is that its main stage represents artists Essence readers are proven to like, whereas the superlounges are often more aspirational. Those lenses give a little perspective to the music in each location as well as ways to appreciate the shows. Mary J. Blige shows at Essence can take on a religious tone, not from her but from audience members who hear their struggles and passions mirrored in Blige’s songs, and the grand drama of Blige’s performances make their own lives feel bigger and more meaningful by extension. 

When Janet Jackson performed in 2010 for the first time since Michael’s death, the outpouring of emotional support made clear that many in the audience felt like Janet, Michael, and the Jacksons might as well have been part of their family, and they were there for her. That show took a few emotionally complicated turns as Jackson told a more nuanced story, one that perhaps hinted at abuse via a video clip from Good Times, teased the theme of S&M, and certainly underscored the human cost of being a Jackson. It’s unlikely her Sunday night show will be like that again, but it will be interesting to see how a 52-year-old Jackson presents herself, particularly since she dressed modestly for her last New Orleans appearance in 2015 while she was married to the Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana. 

The main stage opening acts face a tough challenge as they play to a half-empty (at best) Superdome, but on Friday night I’m looking forward to Ledisi, Miguel (who I’m sorry I missed at Voodoo last year), and the closing set with The Roots, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott. Scott always seems a little studied to me, so it will be interesting to hear how The Roots affect her performance. (Badu reflected on playing Essence Festival in 2015.)

On Saturday, Mia X will sub for V. Bozeman in an opening set on the main stage with Doug E. Fresh, but the set I’m most excited by is Queen Latifah presiding over a “Ladies First” set with Missy Elliot, Remy Ma, MC Lyte, Nikki D and more. If Essence Festival has a secret password, it’s “old school,” and I’ll happily go old school with that crew. 

On Sunday, I’ll gladly take another old school set the Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing Curation featuring SWV, Blackstreet, Guy, and more. It’s a sound that has gone through the cycle from hip to tired to played out to what-were-they-thinking to retro.

The superlounges are misnamed. They are dreadful rooms for music—wide, low-ceilinged—but I’ve seen a lot of memorable sets in them at Essence. Andra Day played one before her debut album dropped in 2015, and I can’t wait for Jidenna to return after his killer set. A couple of years ago, Estelle curated a night in one superlounge and included Birmingham grime artist Lady Leshurr, who I checked out on my phone as soon as I got back to my car that night.

I’ve also seen some less successful but equally memorable sets including the reunited Brand New Heavies emptying the room by complaining viciously and at length about sound problems that the audience didn’t hear, and Luke James, whose manager hijacked his set when the PA crapped out and brought people onstage to deliver testimonials on behalf of James. The low point came when the manager tried to help his grandmother hike over the barricade in front of the stage so that she could tell the audience how much she loved him. It all became worse when James finally got control of his set and played piano and sang without a mic, making infinitely better use of his time than his manager did.

This year I’m looking forward to seeing New Orleans rapper Pell and H.E.R. on Friday night in a superlounge. Saturday should be a good night in the superlounges with British soul singer Ella Mai, Kelela (who I’m glad is playing since I missed her sold out show at Gasa Gasa last November), Empire actor/singer Jussie Smollett, dance hall artist Serani, and actor Idris Elba, playing a DJ set. On Sunday, Central Park busker (who sounds nothing like a busker) Victory Boyd will perform, as will DJ Jubilee and Big Freedia, who’ll play two sets. I’m always interested in seeing local artists perform at Essence because some fly gloriously, as did Tank and the Bangas when they last played, but some acts were reminders that New Orleans can be an acquired taste.