HOUSTON — “Perm in your hair or even a curly weave/ With that New Edition Bobby Brown button on your sleeve.”
There may not have been any New Edition buttons to be seen in the crowd — as LL Cool J once rapped about in “Around the Way Girl” — but there were definitely a couple of “Candy Girl” shirts over the Fourth of July weekend in Houston. All six members of New Edition were in town, as were LL; Mary J. Blige; Doug E. Fresh; Earth, Wind & Fire; Chris Brown; Keyshia Cole; Jamie Foxx; Jaheim and many other stars for three days of concerts and seminars at Essence magazine’s 12th annual Essence Music Festival.
The Essence Fest — which took place July 1-3 at Reliant Stadium — featured a bounty of soul, classic hip-hop, and an off-the-chain Bobby Brown.
“New Edition and Bobby Brown, I hope I [perform] before that,” Foxx said early Sunday afternoon after getting offstage as a keynote speaker. “After that, it’s going to be smithereens. This music is coming back. I been hearing some record execs, and they trying to get back to the R&B thing. Tonight we’ll have a chance to sit and reflect [on] when the music just made you want to do the running man.”
” ‘My Prerogative’ — it was crazy,” Chris Brown said of Bobby’s solo work. ” ‘Every Little Step,’ all that. I was only 2 or 3 years old, so I didn’t know all the words, but I could hum the songs. I used to watch the videos when I was younger and try to get the steps. He brought a lot of energy to the game and showed that young kids could do it.”
Sunday night was Bobby Brown’s opportunity to bring back his whole King of the Stage persona. Away from the arena, Brown isn’t nearly as ferocious as he’s purported to be. In the wee hours of Saturday night, Brown was in his hotel lobby with some friends and family expressing how disappointed he was to have missed Blige, who performed Saturday. He joked about how his daughter, Bobbi Kristina, hasn’t learned how to penny-pinch yet, and he also weighed in on some of his favorite comics — Eddie Murphy was at the top of the list. Passers-by might not have known it was him if it weren’t for his New Edition fitted cap and the pictures he was taking with fans.
When he’s at the arena, however, Bob is every bit the wild man people loved in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Bobby, go this way. Bob, we have to go this way. Bobby,” Brown’s manager and brother pleaded an hour before Brown was due onstage to “reunite” with New Edition. Brown’s actually been performing spot dates with his former group for the past few months, jumping onstage for some of their old songs as well as some of his solo classics (see “New Edition Reuniting Again — And This Time, Bobby’s On Board” ).
“We’re going to go [right] because they told me to go [left],” he said. “That’s what I do. I start trouble. Who’s in the mutha—in’ house? This is how Bobby bes Bobby.”
Instead of following the schedule and going upstairs, Brown went to the side of the stage where Foxx was standing behind a closed curtain. For a few seconds, it looked like Brown was going to jump onstage with Foxx, but a woman in his entourage urged him to calm down. Instead, Bobby went over and talked to Blige, who watched Foxx from the side as well. MJB, who headlined the show Saturday night, looked shocked to see Bob, but nonetheless had a big smile for him as they chatted.
Foxx kept fans on their feet with some selections from his Unpredictable LP but really made people laugh when he walked to center stage wearing dark sunglasses and started a spot-on imitation of Ray Charles, segueing into a snippet of “Gold Digger.”
While Foxx was the center of attention in front of the crowd, backstage, all the focus was on some late arrivals. Magic Johnson was greeted by the Reverend Jesse Jackson when he arrived. Chris Brown, who arrived late upon returning from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, lost his opening spot on the main stage and was relegated to a smaller-stage performance in another part of the stadium.
Hundreds of kids missed the rest of the mainstage show to get a good spot for Brown’s set, which was cut short because a few girls started to faint. The excitement was too much.
On the big stage, New Edition kept the electricity going. While Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Ronnie DeVoe, Ricky Bell and Mike Bivins were dressed up in white suits, Brown jumped onstage during “Jealous Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man” in jeans and a blue suit jacket. It didn’t take Brown too long to work his way out of the jacket and jeans, although he did manage to keep a tie on with his T-shirt.
The side of the stage filled with celebrity onlookers; Mary J. Blige watched New Edition with her husband, Babyface rolled in and Play from Kid ‘N Play floated around.
“We did the damn thing as usual,” DeVoe said in triumph.
“We’re only one song into Bobby’s set and he’s already close to being naked,” Tresvant joked while Brown belted his solo hits.
The group’s dressing room looked like a 1980s reunion, with Dana Dane, Whodini, Biz Markie, MC Lyte and the Sugar Hill Gang all coming in to meet up with New Edition. A few feet outside the dressing room, Slick Rick and Geto Boy Willie D exchanged pleasantries.
The Essence Festival closed Monday night with Cole, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Toni Braxton.
Several speakers, such as Monique, Louis Farrakhan and Foxx, spoke on social topics during the weekend seminars. Essence also introduced an initiative aimed to educate and inspire black youth. The magazine debuted a commercial for a program called “Essence Cares,” which features Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Diddy, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and others.
“What Essence Festival does, if you look at the country overall — you would look at it as far as society — our strongest and weakest link is African-Americans,” Foxx said. “We’re strong in great things — music, business sometimes. But … Essence gives us a chance to get our mental together. In this situation, you give young black kids an opportunity to see young black doctors, businessmen. It gives you an opportunity to see something else [other than singers and rappers].”
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.