8:40 p.m. Thu., July 5, Main Stage
Ciara's tunes sound good pumping from a convertible, and she would certainly turn heads if she were driving. But Essence Fest crowds have always seemed to prefer something more pedigree. They want black music's forefathers -- Luther, Patty, Prince -- and modern day classics like Erykah Badu, Kanye West. Though Ciara can indeed dance, her songs aren't so classic. Ciara's beats -- purchased from Pharell, Lil John and, most notably, Jazze Pha, who produced most of 2005's Goodies album -- mix dirty techno melodies and Timbaland-ish keyboard riffs with crunk music to create what some have called crunk'n'b. The instrumentals are often awesome, viable on their own, helping Ciara sound good -- not that that would necessarily work vice versa. Whereas Mary J. Blige's or Whitney's or even Beyonce's voices overshadow their finest producers, Ciara's success lives and dies by the beat. With high-dollar production and expensive guest verses from Missy Elliot, Ludacris and Chamillionaire, Ciara would have a hard time not selling a few million records.
But there is a little more to the story. Atlanta-born Ciara Princess Harris grew up all over the world -- an only child and army brat. At the age of 14 she decided what she wanted from life; Ciara claims to have rejected socializing in high school in order to pursue her goals. "I used to tell my friends, 'This month we're not going to hang out or talk on the phone,'" Ciara says in her bio. "I even cut out the boyfriend because I was like 'I'm bout to do this. I'm bout to be on top.'" By 15 she'd written a song for pop fluffstress, Mya, and she went on to pen the tune, "Keep Me Waiting" with Jermaine Dupri, for Fantasia's album. She's won two ASCAP songwriting awards, and has been nominated for several Grammys.
Ciara recently co-wrote and co-produced the album, The Evolution, which claims more old-school influences: Michael Jackson, Prince, TLC, Jodeci and Madonna. Still, The Evolution sounds like hot and shiny ClearChannel radio product; good stuff, but it can't touch TLC. New Orleanians, however, will give Ciara props for the Lil' Wayne track from Da Drought 3 mixtape, wherein our city's golden son, with an awkward, childlike charm, tries to directly seduce the young diva over her own "Promise" beat.
So, basically she's just high-end fun. But considering all the veteran musicians Essence consistently offers, Ciara's a bit of sugar in the bowl. -- Michael Patrick Welch
9:20 p.m. Thu., July 5, Main Stage
Hip-hop battles are as much a part of the business as turntables and microphones. Famous beefs include LL Cool J versus Kool Moe Dee, Nas versus Jay-Z, and Ja Rule versus just about everyone. Ludacris has clashed with the rapper T.I. and the talking-head Bill O'Reilly, but with his most recent feud, the Atlanta disc jockey-turned-platinum star seemed to break an unwritten rule: Do not mess with Oprah. Speaking with GQ in a 2006 interview, he called out the network nabob for using a segment of her show -- a visit by Luda with the cast of the Oscar-winning 2005 film Crash -- to denounce his rap lyrics. Winfrey, in her response, shot down misogynistic emcees but praised the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z. (Apparently she missed "Gold Digger" and "99 Problems.")
There was little about Ludacris' beginning that suggested he would one day butt heads with America's Most Powerful Woman. After all, his joke-filled verbiage -- though far from shy about sexist content -- often favored the come-on over the put-down. Born Christopher Bridges, he was better known in Atlanta as Chris Lova Lova, a humorous radio personality on the hip-hop station Hot 97.5. Bridges' break came when the influential producer Timbaland offered a vocal track on his 1998 album Tim's Bio: Life From Da Bassment. The collaboration, "Fat Rabbit," was an instant success, and the Luda persona was formally launched.
If OutKast represented dichotomous sides of the emerging Dirty South culture (Aquemini, the duo's 1998 breakthrough, defines eloquent Andr as "the poet" and streetwise Big Boi as "the player"), Ludacris was the embodiment of a unhinged libido. His first recording following the Timbaland guest spot was Incognegro (1999), self-released under his imprint, Disturbing Tha Peace. On the strength of singles "What's Your Fantasy?" (an overtly naughty sex jam) and "Game Got Switched" (the latter produced by longtime OutKast crew Organized Noize), the album fast became an area sensation. Re-released in 2000 as Back for the First Time (Def Jam), it turned into Luda's initial Top 10 hit.
Word of Mouf (2001), Chicken-N-Beer (2003) and The Red Light District (2004) all followed to the top of the charts, but it was Ludacris' well-received screen time in Craig Brewer's Hustle and Flow and Paul Haggis' Crash that landed the artist on daytime talk shows. In 2006, amid a blossoming acting career, he returned to his Disturbing Tha Peace beginnings to issue Release Therapy, a somewhat somber attempt at more serious and mature composition. But Luda's trademark witty wordplay -- manifested in priceless couplets like "My diamonds are reckless / Feels like a midget is hanging from my necklace" -- is noticeably absent from that record, replaced by straight talk about societal ills. There certainly are no more lines like those from "Ho," among his very first hits: "Why do you think you take a ho to a hotel? / Ho tell everybody!"
Offended or not, even Oprah might chuckle at that one. -- Noah Bonaparte Pais
The Isley Brothers
10:30 p.m. Thu., July 5, Main Stage
Talk about soul survivors, the stalwart fraternity that is Cincinnati's Isley Brothers have been laying down soul from the heart since the early '50s and is still going strong in the 21st century, proving to be one of the most consistently innovative, not to mention reliably groovy acts around. In fact, it holds the record for being the longest-running charted group in music history, an accomplishment as rare as a subtle suit at the Apollo Theater. It's survived every change in pop music trends from the '60s up until today, and put its stamp on each. Songs like "Shout," "Spill The Wine" and "It's Your Thing," remain sonic benchmarks for the '50s, '60's and '70s. Astonishingly, the Isleys have only cracked the top 10 twice and garnered just a single Grammy in its lengthy career (for 1969's "It's Your Thing"). Yet the band has a cumulative effect greater than that of any of the other R&B stars that burned brighter and flamed out sooner.
The Isleys began in 1954 as a gospel quartet, and though it quickly transformed into a doo-wop act once it moved to New York City around 1960, the influence of church music's call-and-response vocals and raucous organ and piano playing is evident in its early recordings for RCA Records, particularly on "Shout," its first Hot 100 hit. The group never stayed in one place for long, with short tenures at Motown, Warner Brothers, Buddah records and its own T-Neck imprint, reinventing itself all along the way from gospel to soul to funk, jazz and hip-hop. Predictably, the Isley's catalog was heavily sampled by hip-hop artists in the '90s. In 1996, the band reinvented itself yet again when Ronald Isley created his smooth-talking gangsta alter image Mr. Biggs for a collaboration with R&B crooner R. Kelly. 2004's Taken to the Next Phase (Reconstructions) is a collection of Isley remixes from hip-hop and R&B singers including Mos Def, the Roots and De La Soul, paying homage to a half-century in the game. 2006's Baby Makin' Music on the Island Def Soul Classics imprint shows the effects of time spent with the notoriously bawdy R. Kelly, who guests on the album. It's smooth, lecherous soul that could make Barry White blush. -- Alison Fensterstock
The O'Jays and LeVert with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill
11:50 p.m. Thu., July 5, Main Stage
The 2007 Essence Festival should have been a joyous reunion of three interconnected musical legacies: The O'Jays, LeVert and LSG (the former trio of Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill). Instead, the storied acts will unite to celebrate the life of Gerald Levert, who passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack in November.
Already considered among the defining voices of his generation at just 40 years old, Levert provided the primary common link between all three outfits. His father, Eddie Levert, a pillar of the Philadelphia R&B community, is the founder and frontman of the legendary O'Jays. Brother Sean teamed up with Gerald and Marc Gordon in the Cleveland trio LeVert, whose 1987 single "Casanova" remains a popular New Orleans brass-band cover. And LSG paired three of the decade's top solo vocalists to form a '90s soul supergroup. Sweat and Gill will join Eddie and Sean in a collective tribute, sure to be the weekend's emotional peak.
It's possible the musicians will draw from two posthumous albums issued recently under Gerald's name. The February release In My Songs (Atlantic), his first solo recording since 2004's Do I Speak For the World, had just reached completion at the time of the singer's death. The record introduces a handful of beat-powered club songs -- notably, the danceable duo of "DJ Don't" and "Wanna Get Up With You" -- to Gerald's favored arsenal of heartfelt ballads. Something To Talk About, an assemblage of contemporary R&B duets performed with Eddie, also appeared on Atlantic in June.
In addition, the shared memoir I Got Your Back -- another planned father/son collaboration -- was amended after Gerald's death to include memorials by family friends such as Patti LaBelle and Steve Harvey. Available now on Broadway Books, it will be sold at the festival along with the music merchandise. -- Pais
9 p.m. Fri., July 6, Main Stage
Rubber-limbed teen singer turns overnight club sensation? You'd be forgiven for crossing up the early fortunes of Chris Brown with those of Usher, another charismatic dance prodigy who fast became an American idol. Despite concerns about its mature themes (some of which were voiced by the artist himself), Usher's sexually charged, self-titled 1994 debut vaulted the 16-year-old smoothie onto R&B's main stage. Nearly a decade later, Brown, also 16, raised eyebrows with his eponymous 2005 debut (Jive), which played well at nightclubs that the flashy performer would have to wait five years before legally entering. Compounding the confusion is the uncanny similarity between Usher's world-beating 2004 single "Yeah!" and Brown's equally hyped "Run It!" Every bit as synth-powered and cinema-sized as its predecessor, the latter rode the former's gilded coattails to the top of the pop charts in Japan, Australia and the U.S. No other debut single in history had made its first chart appearance at the number one spot.
All things considered, Brown could do far worse than to follow Usher's lead. His album flaunts the hopping, Scott Storch-penned dance anthems "Run It!" and "Gimme That" but features even more tender slow jams such as "Is This Love?" and "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)." It confirms the promise of its first single, and compared side-by-side, it's far stronger than Usher's initial offering. Even better, the songs on which Brown has writing credits -- the catchy, mid-tempo cuts "Winner," "What's My Name," "Just Fine" and "Thank You" -- are among its best tracks, pointing to Brown being more than just a flash in the pop-music pan. Indeed, his follow-up, Exclusive, not expected until the end of August, already has placed one leaked track, "Wall 2 Wall," on the Billboard Hot 100.
Brown's 2006 Essence Fest appearance in Houston reportedly was called off when the side stage on which he was scheduled couldn't accommodate the number of fans in attendance. Don't expect the Superdome to make the same mistake. -- Pais
10:35 p.m. Fri., July 6, Main Stage
"Beyonc ... she's like a modern-day Diana Ross," says Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, who placed the singer at the top of her list of must-see acts at the Essence Festival. The one-name diva invites comparisons to the soul queen and supreme Supreme in more ways than one, in a way that's almost meta-referential. She snagged a Golden Globe nomination for the Oscar-winning flick Dreamgirls for playing Deena Jones, the character inspired by Ross in Mary Wilson's loose roman a clef about her life in the girl group. On top of that and like Ross, Beyonc split off from a platinum-selling R&B girl group to strike out on her own, and her star, by all accounts, continues to rise. (Not so with her Destiny's Child bandmates. Kelly Rowland is also performing solo at Essence, but on one of the smaller superlounge stages.)
At the tender age of 25, the Houston native already has a shelf full of Grammys (10 total, and five collected in a single night for her 2003 solo debut Dangerously in Love). She has an auspiciously budding film career and, a fashion label -- the House of Dereon, in partnership with her mother and longtime Destiny's Child stylist Solange Knowles. Although her longtime boyfriend Jay-Z is a multimillionaire rap impresario himself, it's a toss-up as to which member of that power couple is the more super superstar. Fresh off of her triumphs with Dreamgirls and the release of her latest, B'Day, last September, it looks like Beyonc isn't just poised to take the throne of the new queen of contemporary R&B, she's getting comfy in it and putting up her Vuitton heels.
It's unexpected, and almost suspicious, for a pop sensation of her age and at her level of exposure to remain so devoid of scandal. But except for a minor scuffle with PETA about her use of fur at House of Dereon -- a yawn in the age of Britney, Lindsay and Paris' pantyless shots, jail and rehab jaunts -- Beyonc's report card shows pretty much all extra credit and no detention. She keeps her longterm, apparently healthy relationship out of the public eye. She remains on good terms with Destiny's Child even with the solo efforts. In videos and performances, she opts for ladylike over bareness and bling, and in most public appearances seems as poised as Lady Di. She's said publicly that she prefers not to use swear words. How dull.
All this composure, however, may not have come so easily. Destiny's Child, which started up in her teens, went through its fair share of changing lineups, controversy and even lawsuits -- troubled waters further roiled by her father, the problematic manager. Still, she stays tightlipped in the press about those times, and to see her in performance and in interviews, one can imagine that Beyonc is the kind of girl who, if she can't say anything nice, won't say anything at all. B'Day, full of her trademark mix of rapperly vocal tricks, fierce, liberated lyrics and soulful belting, shows her at her best -- the liberated, "Independent Woman" showing herself as a genuine once and future survivor. -- Fensterstock
9:10 p.m. Sat., July 7, Main Stage
Bourbon Street in 2007 would be nothing without the Lionel Richie penned Commodores' hit, "Brick House." You will hear the song no less than 14 times during any bike ride down Bourbon from Canal to Esplanade. Bourbon's proprietors should probably celebrate this donation by Richie to our culture with some sort of statue. Perhaps a bust of Richie's head next to the jazz legends on the 300 block of Bourbon?
Richie's Jazz Fest 2006 appearance was a high-quality, if at times schmaltzy, feel-good '80s time capsule. Attendees danced on the proverbial ceiling, smiles aglow like extras from that hit's famous video. Richie himself looked, acted and sounded so young -- he obviously hadn't partied away these last few years, like his possibly-more-famous-but-for-questionable-reasons daughter, Nicole.
Following Lionel Richie's 1990 release Can't Slow Down, his father's death plus his own divorce combined with several throat surgeries (acid reflux, from eating too late at night too often) forced Richie to stop recording.
But in 2006, with the release of Coming Home, Lionel Richie proved himself more than just a well-preserved relic. The album scored him a gold record and nominations for both Best R&B Album and Best Male R&B Song for the tune, "I Call it Love" -- though of course they still made him perform "Hello" at the Grammy ceremony. Coming Home has been heralded as a return to Richie's R&B roots, produced by duo L.A. Reid and Babyface, whom Richie played no small part in breaking into the business more than 20 years ago.
The record's title also coincidently serves as the theme of this year's Essence event, in honor of the festival's homecoming to New Orleans. "The Essence Music Festival is like a family reunion for me," Richie has been quoted as saying. If he was excited to help New Orleanians get back to partying at Jazz Fest, at 2007's Essence Fest, he may go all night long. -- Welch
9:30 p.m. Sat., July 7, McDonald's Superlounge
With her new record The Art of Love and War slated for release on the recently reactivated Stax label, Angie Stone may finally be able to take the neo from the neo-soul attachment that has categorized her since her first solo discs in the '90s. The new CD, recorded at Marvin Gaye's former studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, shows off her impressive vocal range and songwriting chops.
Born in Columbia, S.C., and brought up singing in church, Stone was a part of the trio The Sequence, which had several hits for Sugarhill Records in the late 1980s and then Vertical Hold. She also worked with Lenny Kravitz and D'Angelo, sharing songwriting credits on D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" and "Voodoo." Then she signed with Arista Records under the supervision of Clive Davis, famous for having signed and mentored great singers from Patti Smith to Whitney Houston. Her record Black Diamond with the hit "No More Rain (In This Cloud)," "Mahogany Soul" and "Stone Love" defined the neo-soul genre.
Recently she expanded her talents to stage acting and TV roles, but now is ready to get back to singing and creating music in the spirit of her heroes, including Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. Her new record has her singing with Betty Wright and James Ingram on tracks produced by DOA and Jonathan Richmond. Stone is also enthusiastic about being on a label that was home to everyone from Booker T. to Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. In a recent interview, Stone was enthusiastic about her record and performances: "I'm healthy, I have a wonderful new creative family, and I have a whole new chance to show what I'm made of. I'm ready to get loud." -- David Kunian
Mary J. Blige
10:35 p.m. Sat., July 7, Main Stage
While she's often referenced as the queen of hip-hop soul, it's easy to forget that before Mary J. Blige got her start with the paradigm-shifting What's the 411? (Uptown), the hip-hop soul genre didn't really exist.
Indeed, Blige's 1992 debut likely did more to further hip-hop's evolution from category to culture than any other nonrap record of the era. Midwifed largely by then-unknown label exec Sean "Puffy" Combs (who would go on to have his own immodest effect on the evolution of hip-hop), the album redefined R&B for a generation reared on mainstream divas like Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey. What's the 411? was grittier and harder-edged than those pop standards -- an honest reflection of Blige's inner-city New York upbringing. Her second release, 1994's My Life, bore even more of Combs' now-familiar tricks; acting as her manager, the producer surrounded Blige's rich singing with a host of melodic snippets and sampled soul refrains. My Life was a triple-Platinum smash, but it also signaled the exodus of Combs, whose Bad Boy enterprise was on the verge of exploding.
Over the next few albums, with her star consistently on the rise, Blige worked with a steady stream of new collaborators. Longtime Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, along with emerging superstars Babyface and R. Kelly, helped to helm 1997's Share My World (MCA), while the 2000 follow-up Mary welcomed a wildly eclectic -- and often just plain odd -- collection of costars. Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Lauryn Hill and Eric Clapton all made cameos on the milestone record, which found Blige tooling around with her sound for the first time. Mary forwent hip-hop influences in favor of classic icons like Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. (A sample of the latter's "April Fools," a Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition, graces the ballad "Beautiful Ones.")
Though she never really fell out of the spotlight, Blige's relatively low-key releases No More Drama (2001) and Love & Life (2003) were entirely overshadowed by the success of 2005's aptly titled The Breakthrough (Geffen). The record established all kinds of career highlights for Blige. The stirring first single "Be Without You" was among the year's most ubiquitous anthems, spending 16 months on the R&B charts (including nearly four at the top); in a memorable December sweep at the 2007 Grammy Awards, it won Best R&B Song and earned Blige the honor of Best Female R&B Vocal Performer, while The Breakthrough was recognized as Best R&B Album.
After 15 years and more than 18 million in domestic record sales, the queen of hip-hop soul now reigns over a substantially larger kingdom. -- Pais