When you call out another award show’s tribute to arguably one of the most prolific artists to walk the earth, you had better come correct.
With the stakes high and a record 7.2 million viewers tuned in on Sunday night, BET did just that. Following their not-so-sneak diss of Madonna‘s wholehearted, but underwhelming tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson, all eyes were set on what trick they had up their sleeves to make things right with the millions of fans worldwide awaiting a much-deserved tribute to the Purple One, and man, did they deliver.
Because one could never be enough, the network opted to take a route that involved dedicating the entire show to the late musical genius.
With a lineup composed of the incredible talents of Erykah Badu, The Roots, Bilal, Tori Kelly, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Princes’s own protegé, Sheila E., the Microsoft Theater was transformed into a sea of purple that kept the memory of Prince alive and well throughout the broadcast, with the show making up for 17 of Twitter’s top 20 trends, four of Facebook’s top 10 trends and broadcasting across 12 different networks.
While everyone was once more reminded of the legacy of Prince throughout the show’s duration, each emotional performance peppered throughout the night served to brand the memory and power of Prince on our minds for years and years to come.
The evening was encompassed in every essence of The Artist, with Erykah and The Roots taking the stage first in the swarm of tributes to come. Performing the lesser known “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” in an ambitious twist on typical tribute etiquette, Badu executed a calm and sultry rendition of the 1987 tune while Prince’s vintage 808 drum sound draped the background, preserving his memorable defiance.
But, it wouldn’t be long until the audience was greeted with Bilal’s enchanting performance of Purple Rain‘s more familiar “The Beautiful Ones”. As if possessed by the spirit of Prince himself, Bilal played his part all too well.
Arriving on stage with cornrows and kitten heels, the Philly-bred artist channeled his inner Prince as he passionately connected with the audience, ripped open his shirt, dropped to the ground, and writhed across the floor as Captain Kirk Douglas took to his guitar and executed an electrifying solo. The end of the performance left Bilal lying on ground, seemingly breathless and in satisfying disbelief of the incredible performance that just transpired. Same, Bilal. Same.
Next up to bat was Stevie Wonder as he was joined onstage with powerful newcomer Tori Kelly, teaming up to perform the Prince/Appolonia upbeat duet “Take Me With U,” each clad in purple garments that would have done the late artist proud.
As soon as their performance was through, Wonder moved from the mini keyboard he’d been working to a much larger Yamaha, while Kelly went on to pick up a guitar as powerhouse Jennifer Hudson took to the stage draped in a white hooded mini-dress, reminiscent of Prince’s blazer at the 2005 People’s Choice Awards.
In true fashion, J. Hud excelled at squeezing in every last bit of passion she had into her rendition of “Purple Rain”. She played it safe during the first half of the track, respectfully blessing us with about as many thrilling bits of soul as she could give. Captain Kirk appeared onstage, once more offering a magnetizing solo, while Hudson slowly built up a crescendo of mind-blowing vocals that truly did the legendary track justice, and she made sure everyone felt it.
Within half an hour, BET was back at it again with Maxwell taking to stage, first to perform his own “Lake By the Ocean,” then transitioning into a graceful performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” even tweaking the lyrics in memory of Prince’s untimely passing, kicking off the song with “It’s been seven hours and 66 days since you took your music away.”
In stark contrast, as had been the night’s ongoing theme so far, Janelle Monae (a veteran in the game of Prince tributes) appeared in all her funky glory to treat us to a lively medley consisting of “Delirious”, “Kiss”, “Pop Life”, and “I Would Die 4 U.” The singer seamlessly ran through the series, with a few familiar dance sequences, and backless chaps in tow, topping off the performance with a very emotional “I love you, Prince!” and “Thank you!” to the crowd before her.
At this point, the night was set on fire. The mixture of the highlighting of the past year’s cultural peaks, multiple gratifying performances, the unapologetic and rallying political moments, and not to mention a much-appreciated surprise Beyoncé/Kendrick Lamar collaboration at the show’s inception, it seemed it just couldn’t get better. BET had topped itself and made its point—multiple times. But, they weren’t done just yet.
It was Sheila E. who would close out the evening’s tributes with a nearly 10-minute long series of purely addictive funk and energizing anthems. Starting on a drum set, Prince’s longtime collaborator opened with “Housequake,” setting the crowd up for a performance that truly embraced everything about the artist who introduced us to a musical world with no barriers.
Next, a barefooted Sheila would step onto the stage to enter into a sequence that would transition from the two artists’ collaboration track “Erotic City” to”Let’s Work”, “U Got The Look”, “A Love Bizarre”, and Sheila’s own “The Glamorous Life”, written by Prince. Viewers were given a taste of the instrumental “Soul Salsa”, then Sheila would grab a purple guitar to deliver a rendition of the political statement that is “America.”
“Baby I’m A Star” would be the closing track. Surrounded by the NPG Hornz, Prince’s former background singers, Shelby J and Liv Warfield, his former wife Mayte Garcia, back-up dancers Maya and Nandy Mclean and Time’s Jerome Benton, a teary-eyed Sheila E. held up a Prince-styled purple guitar as the song ended and flower petals came down from the ceiling, bringing closure to an evening in which Prince’s legacy was cemented for all to see. It left us all blown away and wonderfully mystified, and we’d like to think that he’d think so, too.