Pace Bowden // REVOLT
NEW ORLEANS—On Sunday night (July 3), Essence Festival attendees capped off their three-day celebration of music and culture with one last megastar show at the New Orleans Superdome. Some were there in anticipation of Puff Daddy and the Family, slated to headline. Others were there, well, for others.
As the doors opened, swarms of people lined up in a mish-mash of wardrobes and it was clear which fans were there to see which artists. There were button-downs and fitted gowns for Andra Day, body-conscious onesies for Ciara, Dickie pants for Kendrick and Biggie T-shirts for the Bad Boy set.
The Superlounges on the upper levels hosted sets by Kehlani, BJ the Chicago Kid, the Robert Glasper Experiment and a number of others. Dej Loaf's set in the Coca-Cola Hip-Hop Superlounge drew a wall-to-wall crowd of twenty-to-thirtysomethings as she ran through her catalogue of music, from "You, Me and Hennessy" to "My Beyoncé." The energy varied depending on which side of the room you were on. Initially, upon arrival, everyone vibed to the Detroit player, but on the other end of the venue a woman was being escorted out by NOPD. She hollered at two other women, threatening to see them in the street. The show continued without pause.
Downstairs on the mainstage, there was a lackluster tribute to Prince; wildly disappointing because he'd just headlined on this very stage two years ago. Luke James, Marsha Ambrosius, Kelly Price and Ashling Cole did their best to channel The Purple One by way of his most loved hits. Doug E. Fresh headed some crowd participation between artist sets, and Larry Graham—former bass player for Sly & The Family Stone—came to perform as well, inserting his own "One in a Million You" record. There was a second line that came out to the spiritual "I'll Fly Away," and, although everyone put forth their best effort, it just didn't seem like a show that Prince himself would approve of. Fans were unfulfilled and they said as much. "Prince is rolling his eyes and shaking his head at this, like, right now," one older woman scoffed. Her friend chuckled.
Andra Day followed with a phenomenal show. No theatrics with Ms. Day; her voice was enough as she dabbled in music from her debut LP Cheers From the Fall. Ciara was up next, and the songstress wasn't in tip-top shape vocally and a conversation between two men was overheard where they'd had the same sentiments. "She can dance though," one man responded. She spun, twisted, grinded and twerked her way through her set; some fans were into it, while others were just waiting on Kendrick.
And Mr. Lamar didn't disappoint. The Untitled Unmastered creator wasted no time when he hit the stage. It was as if he knew that he had the crowd in the palm of his hand as soon as he ascended. "King Kunta," "M.A.A.D. City" and "Alright" were only a few tracks that rang throughout the arena, up into the rafters. Upstairs on the Plaza level, a group of three walked. "It should be over pretty soon. His set," said one woman, looking to be somewhere in her mid-to-late thirties. She was reassuring one of the men who appeared to be in his late forties. "He need to get his ass off the stage." Those may have been the only people in the entire venue feeling that way. Kendrick Lamar came to the Essence Music Festival for the second year in a row and ignited the Superdome.
Puff Daddy and the Family were absolutely ready to close out a show known for years to be heavier on the soul side of things. So immediately following Kendrick, Puff had the entire arena traveling with him down memory lane alongside Faith, 112 and Mase. The only two acts missing were Total and Lil Kim, but French Montana brought Fabolous out for "Ball Drop" and all was forgiven—for the most part. Word had gotten out that Total wasn't coming and it was enough to make one man grab his belongings and leave. All in all, Puff had charm onstage. His banter was on point and at the evening's end, he emphasized the spirit of the Essence Festival and what it stands for from year to year. "Black excellence," he shouted over the choir onstage for "I'll Be Missing You." "That's what this is about: black excellence."