Brandy, LL Cool J, Jill Scott and Maxwell were among the big names who kicked off the Essence Music Festival Friday night (July 5) at the New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But even before the first performance started around 7p.m. CDT, the 19th annual event had already achieved its biggest attendance yet.
|PHOTOS: Essence Music Festival 2013|
Essence hosted its first Family Day on July 4, a free daytime event that attracted over 52,000 people and should help add to the festival's already massive numbers. The 2012 festival, which featured performers like Aretha Franklin, D'Angelo and Mary J. Blige, attracted 413,000 people over three days, down slightly from 2011's 422,000 but up from 2010's 400,000. One can only imagine what the turnout will be in 2014, when Essence turns 20 (plans are already underway with the city to make the celebration an exceptional blowout.)
Based on the impossibly dense foot traffic alone on Canal Street — not to mention the crowds of thousands who flocked to the Convention Center for daytime meet-and-greets performances from veteran and upcoming acts and even a live game of "Family Feud" hosted by Steve Harvey, Essence felt bigger than ever this year. Giant installations from the conference's many blue-chip sponsors (Coca-Cola, Verizon, Walmart, Ford, Procter & Gamble's My Black Is Beautiful, Coors, MSNBC and more) only added to the spectacle and seamlessly blended into the experience. After all, where else can you see Doug E. Fresh playing in what is essentially a pop-up McDonald's restaurant?
But back at the Superdome, just five months after Beyoncé performed during Pepsi's Super Bowl Half Time Show on the same stage, there were many musical highlights in the festival's early hours in many corners of the massive venue. Here are some standouts:
1. Brandy kicked off the mainstage with a high-energy set that blasted through every single one of her hits ("Full Moon," "Best Friend," "I Wanna Be Down," "Sittin' Up In My Room"), a few fan favorites ("Never Say Never" opener "Angel In Disguise," 2004's "Who Is She 2 U"), a danceable tribute to her idol and mentor Whitney Houston and selections from her 2012 album "Two Eleven." Brandy appeared in excellent shape, clad in a mostly sheer black lace and leather outfit that wouldn't be out of place on a Janet Jackson tour – with flawlessly executed choreography from Frank Gaston to boot. Brandy crammed nearly 20 songs into her 45-minute set, taking the pace down only for her ballads "Have You Ever" and "Almost Doesn't Count," the latter of which she let simmer as the fans sung along, adding extra layers of soul and melisma to the closing chorus as she repeated it several times. "I just took y'all to church on a secular song," she said, before jumping right into "Two Eleven" banger "Wildest Dreams." It's hard to believe it was Brandy's first performance at Essence, and the singer took the opportunity to shout out everyone in the crowd who came to see her. "My mother, Sonja Norwood in the building! Niecy Nash is in the building! My auntie's in the building! I'm sorry y'all, I'm getting real ghetto calling out everyone now." Though her last album is less than a year old, Brandy indicated later in the press room that she wouldn't be taking another four-year gap between albums. "I don't wanna stop again. I've been taking a break a long time. It's time to get back to work," she said.
2. With such a powerful voice as Emeli Sandé's, it wasn't a surprise the singer-songwriter filled up the Ford Superlounge with both loyal fans and those open to convert. Sandé opened her 30-minute set behind the keys for her latest, "Daddy," off her debut album, "Our Version of Events." She continued to astound with her vocal prowess when performing her featured verses on Naughty Boy's "Lifted" and "Wonder" and other "Our Version of Events" songs, including crowd favorite, "Next To Me," which she closed with. While her set was her first at Essence fest, and nine-songs at that, Emeli Sandé put many former and future acts to shame.
3. From the first song of their set "Don't Leave Me," Blackstreet had the crowd at the Coke Superlounge in the palm of their hands. But something stood out (besides their neon race car driver-esque jackets). As the group blazed through their hits that 90s R&B lovers can't help but reminisce to ("Before I Let You Go," "I'm Sorry"), it became clear that Teddy Riley and Dave Hollister (clad in white, deciding for whatever reason to not match the neon), were the only original members on stage. Not all of the concert-goers had noticed, as they were too busy dancing, until new member, Lenny Harold, turned heads his falsetto during their performance of "Joy." The group, now called BS2 (for Blackstreet 2), closed their set with their classic, "No Diggity," but not before Teddy Riley came out for a solo set to perform a medley of hits he's worked on, from Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" to Heavy D & The Boyz' "Now That We Found Love." (Bobby Brown, who was spotted in front of Billboard's seats for Jill Scott's set, unfortunately didn't make it out for Riley's performance.) He continued to show off his crown as curator of the New Jack Swing era, performing (and doing the robot to) the hooks to late 80s, early 90s hits he's contributed to (Michael Jackson's "Remember The Times" and Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker"). He eventually took the mic to explain the obvious lineup changes, calling Blackstreet "the black Menudo" and announcing a new phase for the band. "We are changing the name of the gorup. Once the upcoming single is released to radio which is very soon, we will host a contest [online] giving fans an opportunity to name the new group," said Riley, who will be celebrating his 26th year as the New Jack Swing architect in November.
4. LL Cool J lived up to his full name with a set that catered to the ladies, at one point bringing several lucky women in the audience up onstage. He also tore through hits like "Mama Said (Knock You Out)," "Doin It" and new single "Rampage," for which he brought out EPMD. He fell short of showing off his abs, however, much to the chagrin of several fans on Twitter, who tweeted at the rapper missives like "great set, but next time take your shirt off!"
5. Jill Scott has one deadly move. As she lures you in with her daring storytelling, she steals your breath with her rich vocal performance. While Jill Scott is used to performing intimate shows, she connected with the fans last night as if the Superdome was the Lenox Lounge. Coming off her performance at Philly's 4th of July Jam the day prior, the singer had the women in attendance nodding in agreement to both her impassioned songs as "He Loves Me," "Hate Me Now," "Golden" and candid commentary woven in-between.
6. Making a triumphant return to Essence, not to mention performing after cutting his 2012 tour short, Maxwell proved he knew exactly how to win over the ladies. Not just by giving them plenty of seductive falsetto — though there was plenty of that, most notably on his still spine-tingling cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," which had the crowd practically melted into the concrete. No, the real secret to Maxwell's untouchable grasp of the women at Essence want came from this simple question. "How many of you watch 'Scandal'?" Yes, Maxwell talked everyone's favorite TV guilty pleasure in between pelvic thrusts, sexy snarls and at one point, a glimpse of his ample behind as he did an acrobatic back-bend to perform alongside a video of Alicia Keys during “Fire We Make." He even previewed his oft-delayed album "SUMMERS'" with "Gods," a single he previewed on his SoundCloud page in January. "This is a song that will be on my next album, which will be out one of these days," the singer teased. In an interview with Billboard earlier in the day, Maxwell said the album was being prepped for a late summer/early fall release, and would feature a more "hi-fi" sound compared to 2009's "BLACKsummers’night," which was a throwback to 70's soul. Though he's been reluctant to reclaim the spotlight in recent years, even cutting a planned 2012 tour short, Maxwell seemed at home onstage, Look for more from the duet partners in the near future — Maxwell teased an upcoming duets EP with Keys in the vein of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and told reporters after his set that they may even reunite for a "megatour" down the road.