On the last night of Essence Fest I fell in love…but no, not with Beyonce. That’s who the sold-out crowd was there for, but to these ears it was Janelle Monae who made the night—and her set ranked with Jill Scott and Charlie Wilson as the weekend’s three great ones.
The Essence folks were clearly behind Monae: She got to curate one of Saturday’s Superlounges, and was even featured in a Cover Girl ad that played throughout the weekend. But in some ways, her set was unlike anything else at Essence: Hers was the only main-stage set that had any trace of a rock influence, and one of the few where the music and vocals were live from start to finish—complete with live horns and strings, which were used to great effect on a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” In a weekend full of fashion statements her fetching, androgynous look (with pompadour, white shirt and suspenders) may have been the most individual. And in terms of presence I was reminded more than once of Nona Hendryx, who did some groundbreaking funk/rock fusions in the ‘80s.
It was also one of the few times I saw any humility onstage, as Monae aplologized for being under the weather and said “As an artist I’m not perfect, but I’m here to give you my best.” Her voice sounded fine, though—unlike many singers with deep, powerful voices, she never felt obliged to oversing. The covers in the set were surprising, but great to hear—Two Prince songs from Purple Rain (“Let’s Go Crazy” and “Take Me With U”), not even done back-to-back. She also did the Charlie Chaplin-written “Smile,” one of the more self-pitying songs in existence, and managed to squeeze some soul out of it. And the finale found her walking through the audience to lead a communal chant; a move that felt inclusive rather than hokey.
Beyonce’s set was preceded by the weekend’s only dead air, an additional forty-minute wait following the usual 20 minutes of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart commercials. And after Monae’s funky human touch, Beyonce’s set came off as a tribute to hugeness—full of Super Bowl production, with everything painted in the broadest possible strokes. She had an all-female band onstage, but what you usually heard was the massive digital whomp of Synclavier tracks. The opening number alone had lasers, fireworks and heavy choreography, all to make the point that “Girls Run the World”– Since we’re talking about 50 percent of the population, who’s going to argue? She now refers to herself onstage as “Mrs. Carter”– a reference to her recent marriage to Jay-Z—and at one point instructed the audience to greet her by that name. While that’s been criticized as an anti-feminist move, that’s not really the point: It’s more about celebrating her status as half of the world’s hugest celeb couple.
Of course Beyonce didn’t get this far without making some superior pop music, and the set had its resonant moments— the Motown-styled “Why Don’t You Love Me” was pure fun, and for once the stage setting (with a retro-styled dance routine) enhanced the music. And there were a few ballads, including “Flaws & All” early in the set, where she scaled everything back and sang live with the band. For the most part though, this was more a spectacle than a musical experience. But it did offer a lot of glitz and a lot of open-ended empowerment messages—two of the qualities that pretty much defined this festival.
View more from OffBeat’s Essence Festival 2013 photo gallery – Night 3 here.