In a sense, the entirety of the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture’s opening night at the Caesars Superdome was a surprise. Contrary to major music festival norms – and to 26 years of Essence precedent – the producers did not publicize the performance times in advance.
So it was something of a revelation whenever anybody started and stopped their set on the main stage on Friday night. And it was news to many that Wyclef Jean and Nas, who weren’t originally listed among the acts, performed at all.
But the big surprise was two unannounced guest appearances: by Lauryn Hill with her former Fugees bandmate Wyclef, and by homegrown hip-hop superstar Lil Wayne with Nicki Minaj.
Even without the electricity generated by Hill and Wayne, Friday would have ranked as one of the most diverse and consistently good nights of music in the long history of Essence. For all the pre-show missteps and drama, when the singing finally started, Essence lived up to its potential.
The Superdome was nowhere close to full on opening night. Seating capacity for Essence is approximately 48,500, but many of the upper-level terrace seats, as well many seats on the sides of middle-level loge, were empty.
Still, the energy in the room was palpable as Essence returned to an in-person event for the first time since the pre-pandemic summer of 2019.
From country to Caribbean
Indicative of the diversity, the first artist on the main stage was a country singer. Mickey Guyton, the only high-profile Black woman in all of country music, introduced the genre to Essence with a brief opening set.
The evening quickly took a hard turn south, from Nashville to the Caribbean. Caribbean music has been almost as rare as country at Essence, but not Friday. The band Kes, from Trinidad & Tobago, delivered a high-octane set of churning, percussive soca music.
Veteran soca bandleader and fellow Trinidadian Machel Montano and his crew of red-clad musicians and dancers showed even more energy. The R&B singer Ashanti, sheathed in strategic strips of pink fabric, joined in Montano’s fun.
Wyclef wasn’t nearly as animated as Montano, even as he played guitar with his teeth and ventured into the audience: “I don’t do security. I’m from the ghetto.”
Up to that point, his set lacked fireworks. Then he settled at a keyboard and coaxed the gentle opening of the Fugees smash “Killing Me Softly.” From the wings of the stage, a familiar voice caressed the song’s opening lines – and out came Hill.
Exasperation is comic storyteller’s stock in trade
Hill’s erratic behavior over the years – showing up chronically late for concerts, not doing justice to her own songs, not making new music, etc. – has cost her considerable goodwill. But her emergence Friday night sent a charge through the Dome and gave Wyclef’s set the spark it needed.
In January, citing COVID concerns, the Fugees canceled a reunion tour that was to have celebrated the 25th anniversary of their classic album “The Score.” Fans got a taste of what that reunion might have been like, as Hill and Wyclef traded lines and cruised through “Fu-Gee-La” and a final “Ready or Not.” She was fully present and on her best behavior. Her unexpected 15 minutes with Wyclef was about as good as Fugee fans could have hoped for.
How could Wyclef follow that? With a frantic, fun soca workout with Montano.
Nas goes back to the ’90s
Essence Communications CEO Caroline Wanga read a statement pledging the company’s support for women in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
That set the stage for rapping Nas. Backed by a live drummer – rap is almost always better powered by a real drummer – he presided over a succession of his ’90s anthems, starting with “The World Is Yours,” from his acclaimed 1994 debut, “Illmatic.” A forthright, commanding presence, he singlehandedly knocked off “You Owe Me” and “Hate Me Now,” tracks that originally featured, respectively, Genuwine and Sean Combs.
“Thank you for your time,” he said politely at his set’s 11:25 pm conclusion. “Let’s keep the party going tonight.”
The party would keep going, but not for a while.
Lil Wayne’s cameo with Minaj
Hulu, which is livestreaming some Essence performances, had announced that Nicki Minaj would be shown at 11:45 pm
She presumably subscribes to a different timetable. She didn’t arrive onstage until 12:30 am, following a video that cast her as a sort of S&M catwoman involved in a heist.
Surrounded by six athletic dancers, the in-the-flesh Minaj sported a blonde high-ponytail and a skintight ensemble as she knocked out “Beez in the Trap.” She gyrated on a Grecian-style chaise lounge to illustrate the lyrics of “Feeling Myself,” one of several songs bolstered by prerecorded vocals.
Backed by a live drummer, a deejay, a keyboardist-bassist and a second keyboardist, she romped through “Anaconda,” her update on Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Momentum flagged when she turned the stage over to her deejay, however; some fans headed for the exits.
That was a strategic error.
Minaj introduced surprise guest Bryan “Baby” Williams, co-founder of Cash Money Records, with, “This man changed my life.” Williams is not a terribly charismatic stage presence; his rapping on “Pop Bottles” earned a lackluster response.
Then Minaj returned for her own Asian-themed “Chun-Li,” and saluted Lil Wayne, who launched her career by signing her to his Cash Money-affiliated Young Money Entertainment: “I don’t think I could love another human being as much as I love Lil Wayne without being related or married to them.”
With that, out popped Wayne in a pair of pink cargo pants. He supplied the shot of adrenaline Minaj, and the crowd, needed that late in the night. The duo traded lines on “High School,” Wayne fully engaged and fully animated. After three songs, he took off.
At 1:30 am, Minaj wrapped up – rapped up? – with the less-R-rated, more-reflective “Moment 4 Life.”
The opening night of Essence had more than its share of moments.