Essence Music Festival: From Boyz II Men to Kanye West
The magazine's annual New Orleans event celebrates "the Essence" of R&B, but it was a rapper who stole the show.
Although it doesn't call itself an R&B festival, that's essentially what the Essence Music Festival is all about. As a die-hard fan of real R&B, I never thought I'd say this, but maybe there was too much emphasis on the genre in this year's lineup. Certainly any festival where Trey Songz can follow Kem -- as was the case in Sunday's lineup -- is a soulful one, but it might be too much focus on a particular type of soul.
On the festival's opening night, Boyz II Men kicked things off -- a welcome bit of nostalgia for anyone who was old enough to remember their reign over R&B in the mid- to late 1990s. From there, the lineup went from Fantasia to Jennifer Hudson to Charlie Wilson to Usher, who hit the stage sometime close to midnight.
While all these acts performed on the main stage, the Superlounges -- large rooms outlining the main arena that are converted into performance spaces -- were mixing things up with one room dedicated to old-school acts like Mavis Staples and Irma Thomas and a "neo-soul" room where Dwele and Macy Gray also put on.
The overlapping interests are what make the Essence Music Festival border on sensory overload. It's an embarrassment of riches, with more music than anyone can handle. On Saturday evening, fans could catch Stephanie Mills in the Superlounge, but not if they wanted to see Chaka Khan do her thing on the main stage.
Old-school hip-hop fans who loved MC Lyte could see her on Sunday night in the Superlounge, but it meant they were missing New Edition's reunion, replete with every one of the original members, Bobby Brown included. Such decisions were so difficult, one was left with no choice but to flip a coin.
Of all the shows I made it to, Kanye West's seemed to have the most palpable energy even before he took the stage at somewhere near midnight on Saturday night. As I made my way to the Superdome, even my cabdriver commented on the Kanye fervor, noting all the traffic from the French Quarter to the Superdome. "I haven't seen it like this since Beyoncé came a couple of years ago." I was at the show he spoke of in 2009, and I agreed.