EW freelancer Cynthia Joyce concludes her reporting from the weekend’s Essence Festival in New Orleans. Read her first dispatch here.
Of the more than 40 urban music megastars who performed in the Superdome over Essence Music Festival weekend — Robin Thicke, Kelly Rowland, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Common, Public Enemy, Angie Stone, the O’Jays and Lionel Richie among them — only one managed to make the 80,000-seat stadium seem sort of, well, small. Beyoncé and her all female band dumbfounded the entire dome, kicking off a nearly two-hour, tightly choreographed set with “Crazy in Love” before she stepped to the edge of the stage: “New Orleans, y’all look so beautiful — I’m so proud of this city.” She looked like a member of some super-race — as someone next to me put it, “She’s got legs like tree trunks, and I just want to climb up.”
Earlier in the evening, Ludacris and his crew were dining at Emeril’s exclusive kitchen table, drinking sherry and, inexplicably, “lots of lemonade,” according to our bartender. Seated next to us was Torico Jones of Memphis, who had come down from that city specifically to see Beyoncé, but also to see the post-Katrina version of a city he’d visited his whole life. “I thought it was gonna be a lot of tears, but it’s great to be back,” he said in a drawling accent that made Terrence Howard’s in Hustle & Flow seem subtle. “They say [Memphis’] Beale Street is the new Bourbon Street — it’s not even close.”
Seeing the equally impressive Mary J. Blige (pictured) the next night was a study in contrasts. Her performance’s strength drew from the fact that it was on a far more human scale — smaller band, no costume changes — and from a prowess that was most evident when she was rapping. “I’m so proud of you,” she told the audience, and evidently, the feeling was mutual.
The Superlounge lineup on Saturday made for some tough choices —Chuck D and Public Enemy? Angie Stone? Lyfe Jennings? In the end weheaded for the crowded Coca-Cola lounge for some fried chicken andfreestyling by Common, who killed.
Some other performances that brought people up out of their seats:
• Lionel Richie — looking very quiet-stormish in a silk shirt and velvet pants — singing the Commodores’ smash “Brick House.”
• A pregnant Sunshine Anderson, singing music from her forthcoming soul album, Sunshine at Midnight— her first in six years — later called her first-ever Essenceappearance the performance of a lifetime. “I don’t know if it’s thebaby or what,” the soul singer told reporters afterward. “I have neverbeen in touch with my audience like I was tonight.”
• Ne-Yo, the hitmaker behind Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” eagerlydropped the names of all the superstars he’s slated to work with, afterhis own mainstage set: Whitney, Mary J., Janet and Michael, Celine … (Ithink Ne-Yo means “without humility” in Chinese.)
• Dressed in a “Black Girls Rock” t-shirt, DJ Beverly Bond— who recently played at the Wu-Tang Clan reunion “for a 95 percentwhite audience” — turned heads and tables at Saturday’s Hip-Hop seminarwhen she asked the mostly black audience, “Why do white people knowmore about our music from 1992 than we do?”
• MC Lyte — youremember, she “rocks the party like nobody” — showed her pioneeringfreestyle skills were still intact, and the crowd recited many of herrhymes from distant memory. (You’re still a pioneer even if fewfollowed in your tracks, right?)
• In their longstanding Essence tradition, Frankie Beverly and Mazeclosed the event by leading tens of thousands of fans in the ElectricSlide. And in a city where “back to normal” is no longer an option,that may well have been as close as it’s going to get.