The BET Awards pulled out all the stops to celebrate its 15th anniversary Sunday night (June 28) at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater. Between anticipated tributes to Janet Jackson and Smokey Robinson to a roof-raising tribute to 20 years of Diddy’s Bad Boy -- with a let’s-squash-the-beef moment between two divas included for good measure -- this year’s show proved to be one of the more memorable in BET history.
In fact, the awards themselves seemed to take a back seat to all the performances jam-packed into the three-hour and 48-minute telecast. Only seven winners out of the 21 categories were announced, including best male R&B/pop artist (Chris Brown), best male hip-hop artist (Kendrick Lamar) and best female hip-hop artist (Nicki Minaj, who brought her mother onstage). And the audience didn’t seem to mind one bit.
All told, the evening’s big winners were Beyonce and Chris Brown, who took home three awards apiece. Tied with two awards were the Academy Award-winning film Selma and Fox’s Empire.
Speaking of Lamar, the rapper opened the proceedings with a bang -- literally -- and to deliver a pointed take on his “Alright.” He was accompanied onstage by a tattered, waving replica of a U.S. flag and two police cruisers. His performance was the first of the evening’s several standing ovations.
Hosts Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross turned in some fun moments throughout the show. Like the opening sequence with Ross in a harness flying over the stage a la P!nk, dueting with a tights-clad Anderson on the song “Conqueror.” Or when Anderson, wearing a brown pompadour on top of his head, accepted the best new artist award on behalf of British singer Sam Smith. “Sam Smith couldn’t be here tonight because he’s white,” joked Anderson.
But it was all about the music. An energetic turn by Janelle Monae (“Yoga”) and her Wondaland colleague Jidenna (“A Classic Man”) pumped up the crowd, as did Chris Brown, making the first of several stage appearances with his new song “Liquor.” Joined by Tyga, the pair shifted into their hit single “Ayo” before Brown teamed with Omarion on the latter’s “Post to Be.” Claiming an award later in the evening, Weeknd first partnered with Alicia Keys for a stirring rendition of his hit single “Earned It,” another of the evening’s high points.
Hands down, one of the best moments of the entire show was the Sean “Puffy” Combs-led tribute to 20 years of Bad Boy Records. From the opening strains of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” the entire Microsoft Theater audience jumped to its feet, dancing, screaming and singing along to a medley that shifted from Mase doing “Feel So Good,” to 112 crooning through “Peaches & Cream,” Faith Evans in fine form on “Love Like This” and Lil Kim getting down on “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Even the umbrella-toting Fonzworth Bentley was on hand, along with French Montana and Jadakiss. Adding to the star power was Pharrell Williams, who teamed with Diddy on the latter’s new song available this week, “Finna to Get Loose.”
Diddy also set the stage for Smokey Robinson’s lifetime achievement award presentation, noting, “Without Motown there would be no Bad Boy.” Performing tunes from the legendary singer/songwriter’s six-decade career were Robin Thicke (“Ooo Baby Baby”), Ne-Yo (“Tears of a Clown”) and emerging star Tori Kelly, who won the crowd over with an enthralling take on “Who’s Loving You.”
Before leading a sing-along of his own with “Tracks of My Tears,” “Cruisin’,” and “My Girl,” Robinson thanked God, BET, family and fans before admonishing the next generation of music artists. To shout-outs of “preach, preach,” Robinson talked about the pitfalls of fame. “It’s a bittersweet wine, intoxicating,” he explained. “There are millions of people standing in line to get a taste; those lucky enough to get a taste get self-absorbed. It’s so ridiculous… You didn’t start this and you’re also not the end of the line. So don’t be so full of yourselves.”
Though she didn’t sing or dance as no doubt many hoped, Janet Jackson nevertheless wowed the crowd when she accepted the first-ever Ultimate Icon: Music Dance Visual Award. Her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis presented the award, following high-energy dance routines performed by Tinashe, Jason Derulo and Ciara, who turned in a riveting performance on the classic “Rhythm Nation.” Cutting a striking, slim figure in a white jumpsuit, the singer touched on her long journey, thanking God and her parents and also noting, “Twenty-five years ago, we created ‘Rhythm Nation’ hoping the world would be a better place. But there’s even more to be done.”
Which was also the case with the BET Awards. Rounding out the seemingly endless array of music were powerful performances by Big Sean, an Empire showcase featuring Yazz, Jussie Smollett and Seraya plus Meek Mill doing his new single “All Eyes on You” with featured guests Minaj and Brown. That’s not counting moving tributes to late artists B.B. King, Andrae Crouch, Ben E. King and Percy Sledge, among others by Donnie McClurkin, Anthony Hamilton and Gary Clark Jr. Or Rihanna stepping onstage to share a one-minute clip of her upcoming video for “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Talented newcomers Avery Wilson and Andra Day were given mini-spotlights during special Music Matters segments.
And the moments kept coming. Minaj, accepting the Coca-Cola Viewer’s Choice Award, also dropped some words of wisdom. “Make it your business to follow your dream,” she told screaming fans. “If you don’t, you’ll look around and be mad at your goddamn self.” Speaking of divas, K. Michelle and Tamar Braxton performed separately and then publicly ended their social media feud when Braxton began singing Patti Labelle’s “If Only You Knew,” adding, “I’m sorry K. Michelle.” Joining the pair: Labelle herself, proving to the crowd -- like Robinson before her -- that old school can still hold its own when it comes to singing.
Coming in about 12 minutes under its four-hour run last year, the BET Awards closed with Fetty Wap, who got the audience back on its feet one last time on “Trap Queen.” A complete list of winners is available at bet.com.