By the time the purple dust settled on Erykah Badu’s and Bilal’s gloriously brazen opening salvo of what would be a barrage of dizzying, savvy, and emotional Prince tributes at last night’s 16th annual BET Awards, three thoughts came to mind: 1) This was not going to be your garden-variety salute to a cultural icon and musical genius. 2) BET’s President of Programming, Stephen Hill, who had the unenviable task of overseeing such a daunting tribute, is an unabashed Prince Rogers Nelson stan. And 3) There would be something for both novice Prince fans who know the greatest hits and hardcore followers who would rather speak on the soaring, WTF brilliance of unreleased ’80s bootlegs like “Wonderful Ass” and “Can I Play With U?” than, say, “Let’s Go Crazy.”
There are rules to the musical tribute and at the top is, usually, SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS. Which is why Badu opening the salute to the Grammy, Golden Globe, and Oscar-winning legend with the 1987 Sign o’ the Times deep cut “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” was so defiantly ballsy and, therefore, very Prince. Backed by the America’s house band, the Roots, the performance was an exercise in effortless cool.
Prince’s signature Linn LM-1 drum machine hits propelled the jazzy number as the supremely badass Badu, rocking a black Kangol, white faux-fur coat, finished by a purple flower on her wrist, kept the track’s quiet quirkiness intact. By contrast, Bilal channeled Prince’s raw, unrestrained sexuality while performing the Purple Rain bedroom gauntlet “The Beautiful Ones.” He lustily unbuttoned his shirt, pleaded in a scorching falsetto—BABY, BABY, BABY, BABY I WANT U!—and humped the floor like he was making love for the very last time. You know, Prince stuff.
The entire series of performances, which featured the diverse talents of Stevie Wonder, Tori Kelly, Janelle Monae, Jennifer Hudson, Maxwell, and Sheila E., functioned as one long side-eye to Madonna’s much debated Billboard Awards tribute last May. (I’ll spare you a summary of Madge’s heartfelt but lifeless performance.) By now, BET’s very public trolling of the entire production has gone down in social media infamy. When the network blasted Billboard on Twitter with a since-deleted tweet that slyly offered, “Yeah, we saw that…Don’t worry. We got you,” it was as if BET was chatting with a dissatisfied Prince who was watching the whole thing from up above in his typical head-shaking manner. But BET’s no-chill hubris could have easily led to a major letdown. How do you honor an artist who made a career out of blowing up musical conventions? Do you present Prince as a soulful R&B wonder; a guitar god; an underground agent for change; a chart-topping pop star; or a censorship-destroying freak? BET’s answer was correct and ambitious: you do it all.
And so it made sense to have a musical deity like Stevie Wonder team up with a newcomer like Tori Kelly for a whimsical, sing-a-long “Take Me With U.” You delivered an amen when the powerful Jennifer Hudson took “Purple Rain” to church as the Roots’ Captain Kirk fired off a blistering guitar solo that informed you once again that Prince was at heart an obsessive instrumentalist. It wasn’t at all shocking to see a passionate yet controlled Maxwell take on “Nothing Compares 2 U” with grace and poise. And you didn’t blink twice at Janelle Monáe’s frenzied, high-energy medley, which kicked off with the rockabilly synth-silliness of “Delirious.”
The petite dynamo busted out a signature Prince steps as the addictive “Kiss” transitioned into the criminally underappreciated “Pop Life” and then the soaring “I Would Die 4 U.” Like others, Monáe addressed Prince’s impact as a game-changing fashion visionary. Her white-lace outfit, straight out of the Purple Rain era, came complete with Mr. Nelson’s ass-less bottoms. It was reminder that Prince was as much about sex as he was about God.
By the time Sheila E. and members of Prince’s NPG band closed out the evening with a string of Prince songs that ranged from straight-no-chaser funk (“Housequake”), guitar-driven cock rock (“U Got The Look”); politically minded statement (“America”) to a celebratory anthem (“Baby I’m A Star”) the message was loud clear.
Sheila E.’s cultural importance was questioned back in May by songwriter Linda Perry during a May discussion on the CBS daytime show The Talk as to why Madonna was chosen to appear at the Billboard Awards over the iconic drummer and close Prince protégé. “In all fairness, Madonna was asked to do this and she was friends with Prince but you also have to think about it’s really the Billboard Awards, they think about who is hot and popular,” Perry said. “They’re not gonna call up Chaka Khan and re-put together the Time and Sheila E. because they’re not relevant right now.” Noted.
The sight of a near 60-year-old performer sliding onstage, pounding out the percussion, and playing rhythm guitar while backed by the Purple One’s musical family, which included NPG background singers Shelby J and Liv Warfield, the NPG Hornz, the Time’s Jerome Benton, and Prince’s ex-wife Mayte Garcia, was a perfect tribute to musical royalty.