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Photos by Trevor G. Piper. All rights reserved.

An initial trip to New Orleans could not have come as a more auspicious time for myself.

For starters, Black America finds itself gripped to its television sets and various forms of social media trying to gain some sense of the George Zimmerman trial, people are rummaging through different reactions to Jay-Z’s latest over-commercialized toast to not only himself but the advancement of colored people who might not belong to the NAACP and for the life of me, it’s the first trip I can ever recall where everything broke right.

Hotel? Simple, effective.

Parking? Only paid for once.

Food? Jesus, it’s New Orleans. Either you’re catching the itis at one spot in the French Quarter or outside of it. Anywhere you go – it’s gon’ happen. By my calculations, it nearly happened to me at The Praline Connection in the 9th Ward, City Diner (home of a pizza pan sized pancake!), Li’l Dizzy’s and of course at Café Du Monde which at 3 AM is the perfect guilty pleasure between a hand grenade and sinful sweets.

Even press credentials weren’t a hassle. People were wholly hospitable. On no more than two occasions a group a chicks waved hard attempting to choose my usual partner for these misadventures, T. Piper. Choosing? Being friendly? All of the above.

But to an effect, Essence dropping the “Music” out of the title and wholly growing up to call this piece of Black Americana just the Essence Festival wholly works. It’s not an account of legitimization, that occurred back in 1994 when the first festival took place. It’s a mere formal move to show that Essence enjoys being the hub for all things black, proud and beautiful for four days in one of the nation’s cultural melting pots.

THE SCENE

There are a few things you need realize about Essence Fest and New Orleans in particular. The first would be the women if you’ve never made the trek before. Not only are they vivacious in varying degrees from classy to utmost high levels of ratchetness – they are open. And by open I mean will curse and fling insults at you with a flurry. There is absolutely nothing like getting cursed by a New Orleans woman. And there’s nothing like gawking at literally thousands of women from across the country who literally came to Essence to make a man weak at the knees from looking.

Men for all intents and purposes will break out linen suits – of all shapes and sizes – and colors to sport for three days. It’s almost as if they bow to the deity that is Ving  Rhames and his style of dress for nearly every movie post-Baby Boy. Plus, expect all of your good concert goers to walk around matching, literally matching with one another and every pimp and Ronald McDonald entertaining one another. Maybe they’re discussing game, maybe they’re attempting to figure out how to get a stain out of a lime green purple, white and oyster colored suit. Who knows.

Although I will admit, if the Style network decided to market a show strictly to how pimps got stains out of their suits – I’d watch in a damn heartbeat.

The French Quarter itself is an entirely different animal, and that’s on regular occasions. Essence only takes what we already had heard about Bourbon Street, drops speed in its drink and plays anything you want in the background. There will be women doing handstands in the rain at 3 AM (noted). Guys standing shirtless without a care in the world just to gawk and one dude who believed he was any and everything America by riding down Decatur, windows down, blasting “Tom Ford” from the new Jay-Z album while a girl proceeded to give him fellatio.

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New Orleans is a place where Kevin Hart can be king for three entire days, hosting a major birthday party where Trey Songz, Wale & James Harden can come in and turn everything upside down. It’s a city where a single conversation with a stranger could turn into a lifelong friendship where you always crack jokes about who you know is in the city for the first time and who’s a frequent visitor. It’s also the very place where I saw Kym Whitley, drew back images of a 12-year old me watching Next Friday for the first time and told her I had a crush on her since then.

She smiled. I smiled.

Stunted on a damn jumbotron.

Somehow through all that I missed out on asking her about a new season of Black Dynamite while another press guy was doing any and everything to promote to her. Thank you Freddy O, you newspaper, blogging hustling savant.

No matter what you do, you just don’t forget what could happen in New Orleans – or an Essence Fest for that matter.

THE MUSIC

LL Cool J – Mainstage; Friday

At heart, Uncle L is one of the few rappers who can command a stage by simply being him. He’s expressive, vibrant and apparently the owner of a leopard fetish. It directly tied into a performance of “Doin’ It” which then segued into him openly telling a group of thirty & fortysomething black women that he liked a “challenge”. LL’s form of a challenge isn’t battling bad guys on NCIS: LA or even trying to convince you that “Accidental Racist” wasn’t more awkward than that “pink cookies in a plastic bag getting crushed by buildings” metaphor. Nope, LL’s idea of a challenge is watching some thick women in a twerk contest where he proudly displays a love for them.

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Jill Scott – Mainstage; Friday

There’s a love affair with Jill Scott, one that goes far beyond traditional ideas and values. We’re talking the sort of love where you’d want to be in the kitchen and she’s cooking while sipping some Crown Royal and you two openly discuss what might be happening whether it be politics or purely sex.

The greatest homegirl we’ve ever gotten not named Erykah Badu.

Oh, and she has a bottom grill that screams sex appeal and sass.

Through weaving cuts of “Cross My Mind”, a breezy version of “A Long Walk” she even allowed H-Town a bit of shine with a grinding jaunt of “Knockin’ Da Boots”.

See?

Jill.

See potential marriage in 2019.

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Les Nubians – McDonald’s Superlounge; Friday

Since 1998, Les Nubians has been recording their own flavor of R&B, a mismash of French neo soul and modern pop. You can scream “Makeda” as long as you want from their Princesses Nubiennes album but the Essence crowd felt itself mesmerized by covers of Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo”, Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” & The O’Jay’s “I Love Music”. They’re celebrating the freedom to create their own music. More importantly as they told us among a sea of “hey boos” and “I need to step my French up”, they’re celebrating he freedom of being women.

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Maxwell – Mainstage; Friday

Can we just go ahead and give Maxwell one of the imaginary awards for male singers who will instantly make your girlfriend question her entire relationship with you? No? Fine, I’m handing it to him on the spot. That’s even after a slow building closing set Friday night where it took a minute for him to pick up the energy that Jill Scott left over. Somewhere around “A Woman’s Worth” and the removal of his jacket, Maxwell got “on” per se. “Fortunate” and a sauntering version of “The Fire We Make” with Alicia Keys … who appeared as a .gif on a screen. “You know I’m 40 years old right?” he told us. We felt lied to. Maxwell is R&B Game Raj Al-Guhl and you can’t tell me otherwise.

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Oh, and this happened – Blackstreet hitting an acapella of “No Diggity’ during a press interview. Yeah, Teddy Riley single handledly wanted to bring du-rag capes back in motorcycle jackets. Teddy Riley, American treasure.

Solange – Mainstage; Saturday

Excluding all thoughts of conspiracy, Third Ward Trill lording over everything in existence with a swift ad-lib or Instagram shot and you know – the black woman Slander Bowl back in February, Solange and the woman who was performed after her were cordial Saturday night. Damn near best friends. Solange, beautifully in her own lane eschewed any ideas of playing it contemporary the moment the Hadley St. Angels album was crafted. It continued on here with her draped in a flowery black & pink shirt/pants combo letting tambourines roar with “I Decided” and having a sense of synergy with her band, who were performing the track for the first time together.

Plus, it seemed rather tame compared to…

Keyshia Cole – Mainstage; Saturday

Let us forgo any and all moments of what happened that one strange night in February and get to the basics. Keyshia Cole in this current phase of her career might not be the queen of all thing somewhat heartbroken uplift and joy like the new aged My Life Mary J. Blige but she does find a balance between welcomed pop star and “that girl from Oakland”.

Backstage she shared a moment with the press with husband Daniel Gibson about her reality TV career (“I’m not doing that, they make me look crazy!”) and her current album but on stage she let both facets of her show. There was her original outfit, a more brownish than tan skirt with pink grass trimmings, dancers twerking to Frankie Beverly & Maze working around to a few old songs of hers as well as newer ones. The latter choice, a sexier cut shirt with short shorts to make plenty feel like she could have been on the French Quarter tearing things down with the regular folks.

Oh Keyshia, if only you could have been on Bourbon Street at 3 AM on Saturday leading folks down the street.

Oh Keyshia.

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Trey Songz – Mainstage; Saturday

The moment Trey Songz realized his greatest power was his sex appeal than some of his great tracks, everything changed. It’s why he’s starring in a black rom-com Baggage Claim with at least three other Essence Fest stars Boris Kodjoe & Nephew Tommy. The moment he began the slowest tease in history of revealing his sex appeal Saturday night felt like a long strange trip. Women don’t pay for clothed Trey Songz, as funny as that sounds. They pay for a shirtless lothario who woos you with his hints towards his own Thomas Edison workings around sex, needing a girl at times and partying. “Can’t Get Enough” Trey left around the same time his braids did.

Still, he knows how to work a room. “Bottoms Up” is still a giant party record to tantalize older women into one more night of debauchery and plenty of his slow burners from “We Can’t Be Friends” to “Dive In” stretch emotions and other things into thoughts of potentially landing in bed with the VA native. Which you know, is the point of being a sexed out R&B singer.

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Charlie Wilson – Mainstage; Saturday

Internalize this.

Charlie Wilson for better or worse is the greatest bridge between the Saturday night turn up and the Sunday morning gospel run. There’s no other comparison to be made. Uncle Charlie already is a legend in his own right – the BET Award for Lifetime Achievement only told you something that was already a fact. “I felt guilty about [the award],” he told us before hitting the stage. “Cause I was the first one to get it with current stuff. Everybody else either had had their time and I’m still going with #1 songs.”

He’s the leader of The Gap Band, a solo artist who has had one of his songs become the wedding track for one of my former co-workers and the moment his name echoed along the Superdome, it was as if Jesus himself had come.

You know, if Jesus had multiple suit changes – one of which was GLOW IN THE DARK and could make something so simple as “Outstanding” sound like gospel.

This is one of those things. Not just an Essence thing, a life thing. Behind Frankie Beverly & Maze, nobody knows the Essence crowd better than Wilson, who preached at times during his set Saturday night while also running through an absolute gamut of hits from his three decade plus career. “You Dropped A Bomb On Me”, “Yearning For Your Love”, “Early In The Morning”, “Party Train” it’s quite clear that Wilson and his colorful band could twist and shout until 1 AM or further. Why he didn’t close Saturday night is beyond me because aside from Prince, Charlie Wilson gave me my best show of 2013.

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New Edition – Mainstage; Sunday

How does this work exactly? A group with six members, three of which went solo and the other three a New Jack swing unit headlining over Sir Charles Wilson, who should have his own suit collection? Well, aside from Bobby Brown and his tongue slithering around both lost and willing to hide inside something for the night, New Edition played it cool, running through hits from the beginning of their career like “Mr. Telephone Man” and the resurgent “Hit Me Off” but their real victory came when everybody broke into their solo stuff.

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Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” could never work in 2013, it’s far too great of a love song in a hyper-masculine R&B world. BBD’s “Do Me, Baby” could easily float on and Johnny Gill’s “My, My, My” is marginally operational at best. Those five carried NE’s relatively short set compared to Wilson’s damn near two hour extravaganza. Batting lead off with “If It Isn’t Love” is one thing, but to be one group to have nearly every song I’ve ever dealt with post breaking up with a woman is another.

Let’s just say “When Will I See You Smile Again” sucked serious ass around the fall of 2007, alright? Alright.

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TGT – Main Stage; Sunday

If New Edition was the preface for a group splintering into different sections for an entire set then TGT obviously took their cues from what Ricky, Michael & Ronnie did the night before. Each member entered separately, running through individual sets and each making certain their respective fans got their treat.

Ginuwine rolled through a medley of hits from “Same Ol’ G” to a walk through of “Pony” while marching through the crowd. A harbinger of things to come. It was almost as if the entire band, up until “Sex Ain’t Never Felt Better” acted like the world’s greatest coverband of three man groups from Jodeci to Bell Biv Devoe to in Tyrese’s case solo wise, a gospel tinged version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. The covering on Sunday night would reach inception levels of weirdly awesome, even when TGT essentially used the Superdome to promote an album of songs that weren’t going to be cover songs.

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Oh. Hi Tamia.

Janelle Monáe – Main Stage; Sunday

To catch Janelle Monáe live for the first time is kind of amazing for me. Three years ago, a review of her debut LP The ArchAndroid landed me a gig at DJBooth and essentially kicked off a ton of other groovy writing things that have led me to this exact spot. So catching her peel off a sort of show that dabbled in a little rock, a lot of soul and plenty of show only felt right – because that’s who the Kansas City, KS native is to me.

Monáe fought through sickness to rip covers of Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”, Prince’s “Take Me With U” & “Let’s Go Crazy” and others, at times waiting until the crowd fully understood what they were in for before letting guitar chords cut through “Cold War”, “Tight Rope” and a rowdy version of “Come Alive” where she and two of her dancers walked up and down the aisles of the Superdome inviting people to funk out and have a good time. She then closed in true Prince-ish fashion, smashing guitars and drum steps and throwing things.

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Oh Janelle, you vaudevillian star turned fun ass musician you.

As Monáe walked off to a wide range of cheers, rumors began sparking that she was actually booed off by those who had been waiting until 6:30 to see the headliner. While it wasn’t a full blown hissing contest at her, there were those who had finally grown thin patience of three days and countless singers. They wanted the main show.

They wanted Third Ward Trill.

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Beyoncé – Main Stage; Sunday

There should be a set of rules given out before a Beyoncé set. No DJ, you do not play Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” after hitting us with Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and I mean ALL NINE MINUTES OF MIRRORS. You don’t play Lil Jon to CURSE at good Christian women in their tight dresses and blink and you might miss it underwear on a Sunday night. You will not do it.

So by time Miguel’s once ubiquitous “Adorn” cut mid-way, the Superdome cranked itself to a level that was part Charlie Wilson, part New Edition and everything else Queen B.

Royal procession, giant video board set up, this felt like all of those Mrs. Carter World Tour promotions with her looking regal and Victorian-esque with a powered wig and getting a crown put on her head. But when she appeared in sequin, that now effortless, “I’m the shit, bow down with grace” pose she carries and easily the loudest roar I’ve heard in the Superdome all weekend, I got it. I think baby tears erupted from the faucets of the Superdome and angels spread their wings. Ratchets did nothing but nearly faint and try to talk about her.

No New Orleans woman who believes she can topple Beyoncé as the Queen of Essence, you can lie to me, you can’t lie to yourself and tweet your way through this.

A Beyoncé show feels like a swaying, moving soundtrack to life. Emotional at times, loud and wholly amplified in others. She knows clearly what she’s doing up there surrounding herself by fire, by guitars that shook off pyro and slipping in and out of at least nine different costumes. Considering that the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour is in a sense her way of re-promoting 2011’s 4 album, album heady cuts like “I Care” & “I Miss You” were penned like the anthems they were. “Schoolin’ Life” and Destiny’s Child staple “Survivor” got scrapped but still.

After overhearing from certified Beyoncé stans how her regular show has been throughout this tour, I don’t think they got the privilege to hear Bey roll “Single Ladies” into the theme song from ‘The Jeffersons’ and then let band introductions during said “Single Ladies” tap dance around “Off The Wall”. Or bugged eyed “I done told y’all about this” glances when “Why Don’t You Love Me” arrived. Or dangerously cover Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, transition it into “Halo” and not lose a single step in the middle. Essence got its own unique, New Orleans style Beyoncé set.

Bow down, snitches.

In February, two weeks after her glitzy run inside the Superdome as part of the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show, I stood three feet away from the Queen of the Universe. She smiled. I took a whiff of her aura and pocketed somewhere near my heart and held it tight. Sunday night, that spot almost broke free to enjoy a new moment.

Because it’s not until you see Beyoncé live that you get why people, mainly women will run through hot coals just to see her live or see her as an icon of beauty and fashion. The amount of time and effort she puts into being damn near close to perfect is something to marvel and look at. She’s their escape, a soothing woman who’ll know pain and sorrows of millions even though she may have never faced or encountered them personally. How it works was once beyond me but after watching 70,000 people inside the Superdome collectively feel like they had waited three days just for this release, it all made sense (and us leaving to “Girls Love Beyoncé”, that too).

Cause Beyoncé did the anti-tour show and showed the hell out.

As a matter of fact, so did Essence. It remains a fine piece of must-do Black Americana that all must experience at least once. If not for Charlie Wilson doing this every year or the women, or the food or the oft chance it’s the biggest single’s convention in the South maybe cause it’s New Orleans period.

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