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Essence Festival Day 1: Maxwell Pays Tribute to Prince, Janelle Monáe Talks About Her New Movie & More

Maxwell
Rex Features via AP Images

Maxwell onstage at Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on July 1, 2016.  

The phrase “joyful noise” has biblical origins -- but for the secular and devout alike, it’s a perfect description of the ambience at New Orleans’s 22-years-strong Essence Festival, which kicked off Friday (July 1) at the city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center before moving to the Superdome. By noon, the brands were activated (Cola-Cola, Walmart and Ford all have massive setups, among others), enough DJs to completely fill the cavernous space were spinning (at no other festival will you hear the “Cupid Shuffle,” the “Cha Cha Slide” and “Wobble” multiple times within the first hour), and seemingly every R&B A-lister of the past 20 years was present, whether or not they were on the evening’s lineup -- fittingly, most festival-goers sported a perma-grin.

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Below are a few highlights from day one of the festivities. For continuing coverage, follow Billboard on Twitter and Snapchat, both with the username “Billboard.”

2:06 p.m.: Faith Evans, wearing a shirt reading “Notorious” across the front, shared details on The King & I -- her upcoming duet album with late husband the Notorious B.I.G. -- with the convention center crowd, citing Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg and Jadakiss as collaborators. When asked, “Is R&B dead?” Evans responded perfectly: "I think I look alive!" 

4:05 p.m.: Upcoming film Hidden Figures, based on the story of the black women working at NASA in the ‘50s and ‘6’s who were essential to getting a man on the moon, could not have picked a more perfect place to debut its trailer, which received overwhelming applause. One reason? The star-studded lineup: Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe -- who was present at the screening for a Q&A -- as well as Pharrell behind the camera, producing and creating the soundtrack. “They called them ‘the colored computers,’” she told the dismayed crowd of how fellow NASA employees treated the women they were portraying. Monáe might be ready for a celestial venture of her own soon, though, adding that she had to learn a lot about physics for the role. “I learned about low orbit -- what it takes to put a man in space."

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4:27 p.m.: “I definitely would have been trending,” said Michelle Williams, laughing, of her infamous fall during a 2004 Destiny’s Child performance of “Soldier” on 106 & Park, which she relived while moderating a panel on reinvention. “Maybe that would have been a good chance to reinvent my brand.” (A Kelly Rowland appearance later at the Superdome meant 2/3 of the group was in the Big Easy -- and that's before Tina Knowles is slated to appear, on Sunday.)

4:50 p.m.: The irresistible Anthony Hamilton -- who’s recently parlayed his vintage, harmony-filled sound into pop covers that inevitably spark a social media frenzy -- had his full quartet bring two-step-invoking tunes like “Amen” and “Best of Me” to the Walmart stage for an adoring crowd. “Y'all know a little bit about that old stuff, huh,” he said, surveying the swaying audience.

7:10 p.m.: Before there was Twitter, there was Tweet, who came in strong with her massive hit “Oops (Oh My)” -- but you wouldn’t know that she predated the social media era by looking at her. As one incredulous audience member put it: “She don't age!” In a time crunch -- a counting-down iPad stood onstage to keep performers honest -- she started taking requests, at which point it was clear that at least for this crowd, she’s far more than a one-hit wonder.

7:58 p.m.: “If shit could be worse right now, put two hands up,” said The Internet frontwoman Syd tha Kyd -- immediately, every hand went skyward as the packed room sang along to “Under Control.” The L.A. group’s effortless but groovy aesthetic has already brought it a Grammy nom, and judging by the general enthusiasm in the audience, that’s just the start. One woman had come from Houston just to see the set, which worked out well -- after Syd had introduced about three songs by saying “This one’s for the ladies,” she concluded, smiling, “I think all our songs are for the ladies.” 

9:00 p.m.: Frankie Beverly and Maze aren’t on the lineup for this year’s Essence Festival, but the longtime festival closers are still omnipresent -- Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who went for shock and awe by performing probably 15 different hit singles he’d written, paid tribute to the legendary “Before I Let Go” singer with a performance of the undeniable classic, as well as his own “Exceptional.” “This is the house that Frankie built,” he told the Superdome.

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9:45 p.m.: The stadium heated up when Babyface started singing Boyz II Men classic “End of the Road,” ripping open his black button-down (yes, he’s 57 years old) and literally sprinting through the crowd for five minutes while singing the most epic version (of that already epic song) you’ve ever heard. Even 13 years after writing the hit single, he still had to call on security to escape the embrace of his fans.

11:05 p.m.: New Edition’s set reached its zenith during (what else) “Poison,” which found the dapper group trading its fedoras for bejeweled snapbacks, and busting out choreography that would put most of the less-grown n’ sexy members of the crowd to shame. The resulting enthusiastic sing-along prompted some reflection from Ralph Tresvant. “It's been 20 years since we had a Billboard hit,” he said. “Thanks for sticking with us.”

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12:46 p.m.: Maxwell closed things out in a snappy gray suit and quickly-shed shades, basically offering to prove the worth of all 60,000 women present with his bedroom-ready slow jams. The highlight, though, was an evocative redux of his Prince tribute for Sunday’s BET Awards (June 26) when he performed “Nothing Compares 2 U.” “Say ‘We love you Prince!’” he implored afterward, and the crowd enthusiastically obliged.

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