Essence Music Festival Welcomes its Queen

For three minutes during her set at Essence Fest last night, Mary J. Blige stood on stage holding her microphone out to the crowd and didn’t say a word. No, there weren’t technical difficulties and she didn’t forget her lyrics. Instead, a packed Superdome sang the entire “I’m Going Down” from beginning to end while the band played in the background. Blige just walked around the stage in awe at the fact that thousands were treating her cover of the Rose Royce heartbreak anthem like their own personal karaoke performance.

And this is what made Blige’s set so special. The Queen of R&B did not perform for the crowd as she performed with it, allowing the audience to sing full verses or choruses at a time. For “No More Drama,” Blige took over, hopping across the stage, seemingly incapable of containing her emotions while singing about her own relatable struggles. In case the ladies weren’t in enough frenzy, she brought out Trey Songz and rapper T.I. to the delighted screeches of the women in attendance. Her performance was the most energetic and dynamic of the weekend, sending Essence Fest-goers home happy.

Unfortunately for Earth, Wind & Fire, they still had to take the stage next. Mary J. Blige had just torn the house down and much of the crowd left after her set, but Philip Bailey and company managed to captivate the half-filled dome with a reservoir of mega-hits including “That’s the Way of the World” and “Shining Star” that spanned four decades. It took a while for the crowd to get fully engaged, but for the closing duo of “September” and “Let’s Groove,” the aisles on the floor filled with dancers doing the electric slide that Frankie Beverly and Maze supposedly owned, ending the night with a party and familial atmosphere fit for the closing act.

In the Super Lounges, the 4th of July brought an international flavor as Estelle (UK) and Melanie Fiona (Canada) showed the American crowd that soul spans across the globe. Estelle especially seemed at home in the smaller venue, taking time between each song to interact with the audience. She told stories of ex-boyfriends, invisible royalty checks and her blackface controversy from earlier this year. She rapped, sang and danced her way through an hour-long set that had the dome buzzing about the British sensation’s dazzling performance. En route to an obligatory “American Boy,” she previewed songs from her new album, including “Fall In Love,” which should be dominating radio waves in the coming months.

Still, that was only an appetizer for the main course that was Mary J. Blige’s explosive performance. The Queen was in the building and her throne was the Essence Fest stage.

For additional Essence Music Festival coverage, see David Dennis’ reports on Friday night with Janet Jackson and Saturday night with Alicia Keys.