This time last year, the BET Awards left viewers with indelible moments that included Beyoncé’s epic performance of “Freedom” with Kendrick Lamar (and four tons of water), actor Jesse Williams’ impassioned speech about social activism and multiple star-studded Prince tributes featuring The Roots, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Sheila E and more.
While it can be a difficult proposition to top yourself, this year’s BET Awards came close — thanks to a series of riveting performances, stirring tributes, a couple of welcome trips down memory lane and rapper Remy Ma ending Nicki Minaj’s seven-year win streak. And at the end of the four-hour marathon inside Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater — marking comedian Leslie Jones’ debut as host — an absent Beyoncé emerged as the night’s big winner.
The new mom of twins claimed five statuettes — including album of the year (Lemonade) and best R&B/pop female artist — out of her leading seven nominations. Bruno Mars, coming in with five nominations, took home his first two BET Awards for best male R&B/pop artist and best video (for “24K Magic” tied with Beyoncé’s “Sorry”). Also joining Mars and Beyoncé in the winner’s circle were Kendrick Lamar (best male hip-hop artist), and three more first-time winners: Solange (Centric Award for “Cranes in the Sky”), Chance the Rapper (best new artist and best collaboration for “No Problem” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz) and Migos (best group and also best collaboration for “Bad and Boujee” featuring Lil Uzi Vert).
Noting that he received his first Soul Train Award on BET for his featured role on B.o.B.’s hit “Nothing on You,” an eloquent Mars thanked BET for showing me “nothing but support and love.” He also gave a special shout-out to former BET president of programming Stephen Hill, who exited the company in March. “No matter where you go, you’ll find success,” said Mars of Hill, who was spotted in the audience. “You have too much soul, too much passion.”
Mars himself displayed plenty of both emotions during rousing opener “Perm,” a track from his album 24K Magic. Part James Brown and part church revival rolled into one — coupled with the singer’s signature fancy footwork — the performance had the whole house on its feet. It also set the bar for the rest of the evening. Keeping the audience out of its seats with their own standout performances were French Montana and Swae Lee (“Unforgettable”), Chris Brown and Gucci Mane (“Party”), Migos (“T-Shirt,” “Bad and Boujee”), Mary J. Blige (“Set Me Free,” “Love Yourself” with A$AP Rocky) and Future joined by Lamar on “Mask Off.” Perhaps one of the evening’s biggest surprises was Tamar Braxton’s powerful, throw-the-mic-stand-down performance of her latest single “My Man.” By the end, the singer had the audience erupting in a cheer-filled ovation.
As did Chance the Rapper when the artist returned to the stage to accept BET’s Humanitarian Award — the youngest recipient at the age of 24. “It feels a little early to be getting something like this, but my God doesn’t make mistakes,” said Chance. Calling to mind Jesse Williams’ game-changing speech last year, Chance chastised the prison system, Chicago public schools and judges for the lack of convictions in recent brutality cases.
Reuniting after 18 years, Xscape didn’t disappoint as the foursome’s sweet harmonies took the audience on a nostalgia trip via a ‘90s hits medley including “Who Can I Run To” and “Just Kickin’ It.” Rounding out the show were special tributes to artists we’ve lost over the last year, including Chuck Berry, George Michael (saluted movingly by El DeBarge and saxophonist Kamasi Washington) and rap icon Prodigy, memorialized in comments from the late rapper’s Mobb Deep partner Havoc and Lil’ Kim.
New Edition, this year’s lifetime achievement honorees, were feted in songs repping their wide-ranging career (“Candy Girl,” “Poison,” “Sensitivity) by cast members from the group’s critically acclaimed BET biopic. After member Johnny Gill announced the launch of a major tour by the group later this year, the original NE crew –decked out in white suits — returned to the stage to lead the head-bobbing audience in exuberant sing-alongs to “Mr. Telephone Man” and “Can You Stand the Rain.” Capping the performance: the film’s two New Edition casts and the originals performing a nimble-footed routine to “If It Isn’t Love.”
In the night’s major upset, Remy Ma won best female hip-hot artist and ended Nicki Minaj’s multi-year reign in that category. During her acceptance speech, Remy Ma thanked two correctional facilities, her husband Papoose and partner/brother Fat Joe. “You can make mistakes and come back,” said a triumphant Remy.
DJ Khaled brought the long show to a close as he, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne reprised Khaled’s hit “I’m the One.” Standing in for the missing Justin Bieber on the song: Khaled brought baby son Asahd onstage for a verse.
For a complete list of winners, visit bet.com.