The last day of the 19th annual Essence Music Festival started around 8 a.m. CDT at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, with an all-star gospel tribute to Donnie McClurkin and Tramaine Hawkins, and finished around 1 a.m. Monday morning (July 8) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when Beyoncé’s two-hour long set wrapped with a triumphant performance of “Halo.” Though the nonstop activity took noticeable wear on the audience’s energy by the night, much to Beyoncé’s chagrin, that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of options for fans of all ages and musical styles.
Fellow Destiny’s Child Michelle Williams, for example, was one of the many artists who appeared at the day-long Get Lifted Gospel Tribute, while other acts like Anthony Brown & Group Therapy, Yolanda Adams, Kim Burrell and Isaac Carree kept the crowd on their feet and in the spirit of praise well into the afternoon. R&B fans got a major surprise on the main floor of the Convention Center when Fantasia appeared for a ferocious 30-minute set that included several selections from her current best-selling album “Side Effects Of You.” And early arrivals at the Super Dome flooded the Super Lounges to catch back-to-back performances from Luke James and Tamia (at the McDonald’s Super Lounge), Marsha Ambrosius (at the CoverGirl Super Lounge), who brought the house down several stories above from where Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé were about to do the same thing.
So what were the most memorable moments of the biggest Essence yet? Read on for more highlights.
Fans flocked to the McDonald’s booth in Hall B of the Convention Center around 3 p.m. to catch a concert where only a handful of people seemed to know who was actually performing. The crowd mentality had many fans flocking blindly to the stage, asking people nearby who was about to sing. By 3:10 p.m., Fantasia happily answered that question, and proceeded to blaze through a 30-minute set that included fan favorites like “Free Yourself” and “It’s All Good,” current singles “Lose To Win” and “Without Me” as well as brief interludes to weave in covers of Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” and Lauryn Hill’s chorus from Nas’ “If I Ruled The World.” Fantasia was intense and committed throughout, allowing her lip to quiver at several moments on her emotional songs, all while stomping across the carpeted stage barefoot and throwing the mic out to the crowd at various moments to let them take the lead. For anyone who didn’t know who was about to perform, they left a half hour later with an unforgettable experience.
A year after releasing her Grammy-nominated fifth studio album, “Beautiful Surprise,” Tamia took the stage at Essence festival to prove she’s still got it (as if anyone had ever doubted her.) Tamia delivered a flawless one-hour set, performing every song with as much passion as if it was the first time. The singer, in an ivory knee-length satin dress, begun by slow winding to “Imaginaiton,” then transitioned into the seductive, “Can’t Get Enough.” Tamia went through her hits (“Officially Missing You,” “So Into You”), hitting each note effortlessly. “Can I take y’all back to the very beginning?” she said at one point to perform her first hit, “You Put A Move On My Heart.” “Any singers in the crowd, I’ma need you to help me hit one of these notes. I was 19 when I did this.” Tamia, with a hand on her heart and a grin, was taken back by fans’ appreciation shown through their singing of every word, as if comfortable in their own shower stall. But it was Tamia that left fans with chills when closing her set, on her knees, leaning back belting “Stranger In My House” as husband of 15 years Grant Hill looked on from the side of the stage.
With anticipation heavy for Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe made sure all eyes stayed on her for the full duration of her 70-minute set. Aided by the backing of her band, which had as intense enthusiasm as her despite feeling under the weather, Monáe gave life to songs from her “ArchAndroid” album, such as “Tightrope,” but left out singles from her upcoming album, “The Electric Lady.” She drew in and connected with the audience via tributes to Michael Jackson (“I Want You Back”), James Brown (appropriating his cape routine during “Tightrope”) and Prince (“Take Me With U” and “Let’s Go Crazy”). But it was her closing of “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” that thrilled, as she walked through the aisles dancing and sparking a call and response with fans. Once back on stage, Monáe, in true rock star form, threw down the mic and drums and stormed off stage.
There’s no mistaking that Beyoncé brought one of the biggest, densest and most diverse crowds to Essence with her closing-night performance. But because the festival is still targeted toward and attended by middle-aged African-American women, the energy levels for a show that got off to a late start around 11 p.m. weren’t always up to Beyoncé’s liking. “New Orleans, y’all are at a 3 right now and I’ma need you to get up to a 10,” Beyoncé commanded at one point. Later, she cast herself as the Tinkerbell of Essence, thriving on the audience’s applause and stopping and starting her appropriately named song “Why Don’t You Love Me?” until she received a satisfactory volume of approval to continue.
So let’s be honest — it was probably a less-crazed group of folks than the ones in the crowd the last time Beyoncé played the Super Dome. You know, that football game in February? Her pair of shows at the Staples Center during the BET Experience (an event semi-competitive to Essence) was probably more hyped. But that didn’t make this pivotal stop on the Mrs. Carter World Tour any less special or brilliantly executed. Beyoncé still gave the show her custom 110%, racing through more than a dozen costume changes, smacking every note upside the head and nailing every last booty drop in the process. The slightly abbreviated set was virtually identical to the others she’s played on the tour thus far, cutting out only “Schoolin’ Life” and her only Destiny’s Child moment, “Survivor.”
And though much has been made on the lack of new material Beyoncé has been trotting out on this tour, which was presumed to set up her upcoming fifth album, it’s easy to forget that she also never toured behind 2011’s “4.” So impassioned album cuts like “I Care” and the Frank Ocean-penned “I Miss You” got their due where they would have otherwise been shelved, and dance jams like “Run The World (Girls)” and “End Of Time” got the anthem treatment.
Still, by the time she closed the mainset with expected next single “Grown Woman,” clad in a chartreuse animal print and writhing in front of lush African scenery, it was clear that the next chapter of her musical career would be emphatically received. The audience already knew all the words, and even some of the choreo from leaked footage on other dates, a sign that Beyoncé may have to start prepping a whole ‘nother tour a lot sooner. Oh, and Jay-Z was in the building, some 24 hours before the commercial release of “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” which will include the song “Part II,” an apparent sequel to the song “On The Run” that Beyoncé leaked as a solo cut earlier that day.