NEW ORLEANS — The 16th annual Essence Music Festival ended in triumph in the early hours of Monday morning, as Earth Wind & Fire closed out the weekend with hits like "September" and "Reasons."
For several days, Essence magazine — celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — and its 20-plus sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Olay and Ford, drove home messages of empowerment, self-esteem and self-awareness. By day, thousands hit New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where dozens of companies had set up booths and where acts like Keith Sweat and El DeBarge performed. Those passing through the convention center were also treated to good old celebrity sightings like T.I. and comedian/author Steve Harvey, who led relationship talks.
At night, of course, it was all about the music at the Louisiana Superdome. Trey Songz, Estelle, Kid 'N Play, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, Jill Scott, Joe, Gladys Knight and Keri Hilson were among dozens of performers who opened both on the main stage and the smaller lounge stages. And the headliners were big guns: Janet Jackson kicked things off Friday, Saturday belonged to Alicia Keys and on Sunday night, though Earth Wind & Fire were last on the lineup, it was all about Mary.
Mary J. Blige walked away with the performance of the weekend, showing a definitive command of the audience. The queen of hip-hop soul had the New Orleans crowd in a frenzy like a Reggie Bush touchdown, opening up her catalog and doling out cherished ditties such as "Real Love." When Blige brought out Trey Songz to sing on "We Got Hood Love," Trigger, of course, got another resounding ovation from the ladies.
"Thank you for helping your big sister out," Mary told Trey.
"Sweet Thang" was huge, likely going over heavy because of its sing-along factor, and the audience was so enthralled on "I'm Going Down," Mary only had to sing one line to tear the roof off the Dome.
"Time on my hands, since you been away boy," the female fans roared, taking over the reins of the record. "Sleep doesn't come easy," Mary soon joined in, but the hypnotized spectators kept singing the lyrics. After the record, Blige struck a b-girl pose with her fist balled almost all the way up and her thumb touching her chin.
"Let me say this, the Mary J. Blige fans are in the building. I'm having a great time," Mary said before complimenting the ladies on how good they were looking and how great they sounded.
"We've reached that point in the night when we have to address some things," she continued. The Queen then advised the women that some people will try to push them down, and that there's only one way to handle those people: Tell them you're trying to get up. "We will have no more drama," she insisted, following up with "No More Drama."
"I may not be perfect for you, but I'm perfect for me," Mary told the ladies. She also said she was cool with her imperfections. "It can only make me better to know I am imperfect. ... It's only one you baby. It's only one you, original, baby."
The tempo soon changed up: "I wanna keep y'all hype right now. Keep y'all right," she said. T.I. then came onstage for "Good Love" and the fans went crazy. Mary hugged Tip and he saluted the crowd. Blige's set ended with her smashes "Family Affair" and "Be Without You."
The night before, the highlight on the bill was Alicia Keys, who was introduced by Jada Pinkett Smith. The five-months pregnant singer, who appeared to be standing on six-inch heels, slipped and fell onstage during "Love Is Blind," but she never missed a beat (her vocals were nearly flawless) or a lyric. She got right back up and went to the piano and played.
Keys' set had several signature moments, including "You Don't Know My Name" and "Fallin'." And though she did show her skills on the piano for cuts like "Diary," A.K. got up and danced on several selections, including "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)."