Maxwell, Kendrick Lamar hit the Essence stage

Fans also get Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy and Prince tributes

- Alex Rawls

On the opening night of the 22nd Essence Music Festival, R&B singer Maxwell announced: “This is Black Christmas. Kwanzaa in July.” Like holidays, Essence comes with a lot of ritual. Many packed into New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome had spent Fourth of July weekends there in the past, and seeing artists they’ve enjoyed before clearly was as important as the new acts that make each year distinct.

When Maxwell played Essence for the third time Friday night, he topped a bill that also included Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and New Edition.

Earlier Friday, Maxwell released his first album in seven years, black SUMMERS’ night, but he only visited it for Lake by the Ocean, the single from it that has climbed Billboard’s Adult R&B chart.

Perhaps because of his ’90s neo-soul vintage, Maxwell is a more bohemian romantic icon. He wore his suit impeccably and sang with impressive tenderness, but he also could be awkward in a way that made him accessible. When he danced, the line between smooth and goofy was a dotted one, and when he retrofitte­d the lyrics of Nothing Compares 2 U to be about Prince, the results seemed endearingl­y handmade. “It’s been seven hours and I don’t know how many days since you went away,” Maxwell sang to end the song, meter and rhyme scheme be damned.

On Saturday night, Mariah Carey made her Essence debut. Her voice remains impressive, but her flights of vocalese often seemed more about seeming emotional than being emotional. Carey, who had multiple wardrobe changes, closed with We Belong Together, a reminder of what the show could have been. She used her prodigious vocal abilities to be affecting as she articulate­d the song ’s combinatio­n of love and loss.

The final night of Essence began with a tribute to Prince. New Orleans’ Luke James started by singing the blues rock version of Let’s Go Crazy and Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone concluded with a performanc­e of Purple Rain and 1999 before New Orleans’ Stooges Brass Band, Mardi Gras Indians, and members of some of New Orleans’ social aid and pleasure clubs took the stage.

In the past, Essence has been leery of hip-hop, sensitive to its history of attitudes and language demeaning to women. Because of that, Kendrick Lamar and Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Family reunion back-to-back marked a change. On Sunday night, Lamar reduced his band to a four-piece with no horns, and the tighter, harder sound allowed him to work the venue with authority.

The Bad Boy Family set included Mase, 112, Faith Evans and French Montana, but Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs was the star running the show. He was never the best rhymer or rapper on Bad Boy, but his charisma and nerve gave him credibilit­y as a performer beyond his skills. Bad Boy was never cutting-edge, but it, like the show, simply made people happy.

 ?? BENNETT RAGLIN, GETTY IMAGES, FOR 2016 ESSENCE FESTIVAL ?? Maxwell takes his third turn on the Essence stage Friday, the same day he released his latest album.
BENNETT RAGLIN, GETTY IMAGES, FOR 2016 ESSENCE FESTIVAL Maxwell takes his third turn on the Essence stage Friday, the same day he released his latest album.

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