And that’s on top of a record year in 2013, featuring closing-night headliner Beyoncé, which saw a 30% increase from the year prior to 543,000 people. Doug Thornton, executive VP of Superdome management company SMG, expects more than 130,000 people to attend the festival each night – that’s more than Coachella or Lollapalooza.
With a fourth night added for the first time on Thursday – featuring performances from Nas, Trey Songz, Jazmine Sullivan and K. Michelle — and Prince’s 4th of July headlining set sold out more than a week in advance, expect a weekend full of surprises with musical legends.
Other performers throughout the weekend include Saturday-night headliner Mary J. Blige (a 12-time veteran of the Essence stage) and Sunday’s one-two punch of Charlie Wilson and Lionel Richie (“I don’t know how anyone will have any energy left,” jokes Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications.)
The daytime programming at the convention center also brings an A-list lineup of speakers, including Kevin Hart, Steve Harvey and Alicia Keys, the latter of whom appeared on a panel Friday subtitled “Empowering Black Women To End AIDS.”
Read on for minute-by-minute highlights from Day 2 of the Essence Festival.
8:20 p.m.: Janelle Monae takes the stage for her second consecutive Main Stage performance, kicking things off appropriately with “Electric Lady” album cut “Givin ‘Em What They Love” – the studio version of which features Prince. No sign of The Purple One on this one, but…
9:05 p.m.: After Monae tears through hits like “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Prime Time” and “Tightrope,” it’s time to pay tribute to her mentor and friend with “Let’s Go Crazy.” And guess who shows up for a guitar solo?
9:08 p.m.: Monae is carried off the stage kicking her legs in mock distress as the Dome erupts in applause. Though she had to liven up a venue that was barely half-full by this point, she more than made up for the lukewarm response she received from the crowd just a year prior, who were clearly more in the mood to see closing headliner Beyoncé.
9:25 p.m.: A packed house crowds the Ford SuperLounge to catch SWV, back for a second time after appearing in 2012. The trio’s hour-long set kicks off with “All About You,” an uptempo jam from their recent comeback album “I Missed Us,” and goes straight into “Right Here (Human Nature Remix)” and “So Into You,” in case there was any doubt the hundreds of fans were going to get exactly what they came for.
10:10 p.m.: Lead SWV singer Coko asks the crowd if they can take things back for a remake. “This song actually earned us a Grammy nod,” she says before kicking off the group’s cover of Patti Labelle ballad “If Only You Knew,” which indeed scored the group its first Grammy nomination since being up for Best New Artist in 1994. The crowd sings along at the highest volume it’s registered all night, a sign that “old school R&B” goes a lot further back than SWV’s heyday for the women who flock to Essence. At one point, in fact, the group’s Leanne “Lelee” Lyons shouts out, “Where my 40s, 50s and 60s sisters at?”
10:20 p.m.: How do you close a set by the queens of ‘90s R&B slow jams? With “Rain” and “Weak,” of course.
10:30 p.m.: As the SuperLounges empty so attendees can grab their seats for Prince, it turns out the headliner has already taken the stage once again during Nile Rodgers and Chic’s set, for a rendition of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Lending his chops to another brief guitar cameo, Prince is already gone by the time the band rips into its signature hit “Le Freak.”
11:21 p.m.: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” Yup, it’s Prince o’clock. The singer supposedly turned 56 just last month, but he looks roughly half that sporting his ‘fro of the moment, pants so tight they could very well be bell-bottomed leggings, and a long, flowy gray sweater that looks like something your art teacher wore in the ‘70s. In other words, he’s looking as Prince-ly as you could possibly imagine.
11:23 p.m.: The festival has a technical curfew of 1:00 a.m., but it’s hard to imagine it being honored from a performer notorious for encores that can go as long as his main sets. “We gon’ play 14 hits in a row!” Prince announces before going into a hard-rock version of “Let’s Go Crazy” that segues nicely into some guitar work inspired by Queen guitarist Brian May’s “We Will Rock You” solos.
11:28 p.m.: With 2014 being the 30th anniversary of “Purple Rain,” it’s not a surprise to find nearly half of that iconic album’s tracks scattered among the set. Up next: “Take Me With U,” an overlooked latter-period single. With the show already batting 2 for 2 in following the album’s exact sequence, could “Computer Blue” be up next? (Alas, it’s not. And given Prince’s family-friendly policy nowadays, best believe “Darling Nikki” is off the table.)
11:32 p.m.: “Raspberry Beret” time. Also, time for dancers – over a dozen of them, it appears, each dressed in different all-white ensembles with purple accents, from ascots to suspenders to, yes, berets. A trio of backup singers also take to the nose of the stage, including breakout star Liv Warfield, who plays the Superlounges later in the weekend. The dance party quickly segues into “U Got The Look” (no Sheena Easton sightings), which doubles as a showcase for a stunningly gorgeous dancer. She’s clad in a black-and-gold dress with a slit cut up to there, and her body is indeed hecka-slammin’.
11:37 p.m.: Quick Michael Jackson tribute, as Prince asks for the house lights to go up on a special rendition of “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.”
11:43 p.m.: “You know how many hits I got?” Prince skipped his humble pie for dessert, and thank goodness. Now it’s time for “When Doves Cry” and “Sign O The Times.”
11:56 p.m.: We’re cruising into midnight with a relentlessly funky trio of Prince classics: “Controversy,” “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” By the time he slows things down a bit with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” he’s more than earned the right to let the crowd do most of the singing.
12:10 a.m.: “Thank you to New Power Generation, Doug E. Fresh, Nile Rodgers and Janelle Monae. This is your party now. Any requests?” This was an absurd question for Prince to ask, of course, since it was posed to an arena full of 130,000 people. “Since y’all can’t make up your mind, lemme pick one.”
12:11 a.m.: Surprise! It’s “Kiss.” And on the line “I know how to undress me,” Prince doffs the old-lady sweater to reveal a long-sleeved blouse emblazoned with his own face. Well, kind of anyway – there’s a third eye poking out of his sunglasses, a reference to his all-female band, 3RDEYEGIRL (who are effortlessly shredding this two-hour set while somehow looking like they just came from a “V” magazine photo shoot the whole time.)
12:15 a.m.: The first true surprises guests of the night show up for “Sometimes It Snows In April” – British jazz-soul singer Lianne La Havas, who’s otherwise not on the bill during Essence weekend, and New Orleans stalwart Trombone Shorty.
12:25 a.m.: Prince began 2014 teasing a new album with 3RDEYEGIRL dubbed “Plectrum Electrum,” and appeared on “The New Girl” and “The Arsenio Hall Show” to debut songs from it. That LP has now apparently been shelved for now, according to a recent interview Prince gave to his hometown paper, but didn’t stop Prince from revisiting “Plectrum Electrum” cut “FunkNRoll” during the set. “Act Of God,” from his last proper full-length “20TEN,” also makes a surprise appearance.
12:40 a.m.: Prince is being exceptionally generous in paying it forward to his peers tonight. There’s back-to-back covers of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” which pairs seamlessly with The Time’s “Jungle Love,” since both are the brainchildren of Minnesotans Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Sheila E.’s “Glamorous Life” soon follows, and there’s some more jamming.
12:50 a.m.: Then Prince leaves. Of course, no one else in the crowd does, because we know what we came for. The sound of thunder pipes through the speakers, validating our patience. A chant of “Purple Rain! Purple Rain!” is summoned.
12:52 a.m.: “Thirty years ago today this was the sound. You can sing along if you want to.” And the whole Superdome does. Fittingly, Prince showers the crowd in purple confetti, and sets free over five dozen purple balloons into the sky as well.
1:04 a.m.: More jamming. Looks like “Purple Rain” is not quite the grand finale.
1:10 a.m.: Prince has said goodnight, but no one’s buying it. Two minutes later, he’s back, and this time so is Janelle Monae. One more song and then it’s really over. At least, at the Superdome. Liv Warfield is due onstage momentarily cross-town at the House of Blues, backed by the NPG Hornz. And guess who just might show up around 3 a.m…