Saturday night (July 4) at New Orleans Superdome proved to be the most eventful evening of this year’s Essence Music Festival. The crowd was younger, but of course the headlining artists, Usher and Missy Elliott can be credited with bringing them out — although people seemed to be a lot more excited about Missy’s coming set than they were Usher’s. Still, there were plenty of names, big and small, to keep concertgoers satisfied.
Common opened the main stage with one background singer, one drummer, a keyboard player and a DJ. He was dressed in a simple white bomber jacket and fitted black jeans. The Oscar winner showcased his affinity for performing without much filler. He started out with “The Corner,” and the most flash behind him on the screens was a video montage of pedestrians defining the concept of “love.” One woman standing with a man — presumably her significant other — and her baby said, “It means love and respect…”
Then the screen went black and the emcee pointed out a young lady to be escorted onstage. She was beaming as he sat her down and went into a freestyle detailing small points he’d asked her about: her name and hometown. “This girl Ashley, she tried to walk past me, like she didn’t grasp me…” By the end, he’d seamlessly moved into his collaborative effort with Erykah Badu “Come Close.” “Are your eyes still green, girl?” he rapped, tracing the outline of Ashley’s face with his finger. By the hook, Common was hugging her from behind and kissing her neck. The crowd, filled with women at that point, shrieked in delight.
At the same time, people lined up for hometown hero Mystikal upstairs at the Coca-Cola Art of Hip-Hop Superlounge. Attendees rocked everything from Gucci sneakers and Stacey Adams to pedicured toes forced into too-high-for-tonight heels. All of them stood in a massive line outside the doors as the show was rocking. The rapper commanded the stage with classic joints from his No Limit days, jumping into “Danger” before bringing Cupid — of “The Cupid Shuffle” — out onstage to fill a break, later joining him to perform their 2014 hit “Wham Dance.” The crowd was moving, and Mystikal got into it too, dancing around as he rapped. “Man,” he said, with a chuckle. “I almost hurt my back for real.”
Over at the Verizon Now Playing Superlounge, Elle Varner moved through her first smashes as well. Dressed sweetly in pastels and white, the singer-songwriter belted out the lyrics to “Only Wanna Give It to You” and “I Don’t Care” as if the muses for both songs were right there in the crowd. On the latter, Varner seemed to touch on recent political events, singing, “You should love who you wanna love.”
Back at the main stage, Erykah Badu was running late, but her fans are used to the “analog girl” popping up a little tardy, so no one seemed to be losing patience. Finally, she emerged in an oversized top hat and distressed overalls. As usual, a live band backed Badu along with congos, a tambourine player and a couple of background singers. The singer is often in a jovial mood when she’s onstage, but she was in rare form last night. After “Clever,” from the Mama’s Gun LP, the band jumped a cue too quickly, but Badu kept her cool. She gently corrected them a couple of times, then had the guitar player try singing the refrain. He was unsure of himself — his voice was not made for singing — and the crowd tittered. It was very cute. Then Badu told her male background singer to hit the refrain, and he went above and beyond what was necessary. She jokingly pulled the standing mic away, and his voice trailed off as his eyes widened in feigned shock.
By the time she got to her closing song “Tyrone,” the audience was entranced but missing lines of the popular song. “New Orleans,” she teased. “Y’all wasn’t ready. Niggas all over the world know this shit… Black people too!”
Upstairs at the same time, Raheem DeVaughn was preaching to his fans in the Verizon Now Playing Superlounge. “We living in a world where it’s 2015 and we living like it’s 1962,” he said, as 2010’s “Bulletproof” played in the background. “We can pray about it but we need to mobilize. It could be a race thing but it’s more of a class thing between the haves and the have-nots.” From there he catered to the countless couples at his stage with a performance of “Guess Who Loves You More,” paying homage to his DC upbringing by incorporating a go-go feel with the congo drums onstage.
Then Missy hit the main stage with a point to prove. “I know y’all got your hair did and all that but we came to party,” she taunted, with a grin. “I hope you brought your beautician with you…” Missy shot through her hits, from “One Minute Man” and “Supa Dupa Fly” to “Sock It To Me” and “Hot Boy.” It was when she got to “Pass that Dutch” where the issues began.
Her dancers had performed a number of steps resembling a folksy clog dance, but Missy felt that the crowd wasn’t paying close enough attention — or maybe she just wanted to ensure that they were. Either way, she asked the sound guy to repeat the end of the song so that her dancers could go in again. “Oh. Y’all can’t do it?” She seemed to be responding to what she heard through her earbuds. Then, nothing worked. Period. She couldn’t even move into her next song for six minutes. It was awkward. “See? These are the type of things that artists go through… ,” she repeated this statement at least three times, noticeably annoyed although she was smiling. By the time the sound was back up, she was barely able to do another couple of quick verses. In the middle of Jazmine Sullivan appearing for their collaborative track “Need U Bad,” the sound and the mics were cut off again. Fans were incensed.
So Usher entered a difficult situation. People who were already irritated with how the Missy set played out, were leaving and the others were still blown away that the crew at the festival would have Usher follow up an explosive show from Missy. “He’s gonna put us all to sleep,” one was overheard saying.
The R&B crooner wasn’t bad though. “I look out into the audience and I see grandmas, aunts, uncles, husbands and wives,” he started. “I feel like y’all are my family and I have to appreciate you. All that I am is because of you so I want you to celebrate these 23 years of music with me.” He commenced to running through his hits: from “You Remind Me” all the way to his current collab with Wale, who joined him onstage for “The Matrimony.” Still, none of it was enough to kill the sting of Missy being cut short unceremoniously.