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The 2012 Essence Music Festival 

Alex Woodward on D'Angelo, Aretha, Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan and all the headliners

click to enlarge D'Angelo is among the headliners at the Essence Music Festival.
  • D'Angelo is among the headliners at the Essence Music Festival.

Now in its 18th year, the annual Essence Music Festival attracts nearly half a million attendees to downtown New Orleans for a consistently solid lineup of R&B and hip-hop stars. This year, the world turns its eyes to the event for one performer in particular: the 2012 Essence Fest hosts the first live U.S. appearance from D'Angelo, the neo-soul mastermind whose reclusiveness following 2000's Voodoo and its subsequent success has developed into its own legend.

  D'Angelo's first album, 1995's Brown Sugar, was an acclaimed first glimpse into the '90s neo-soul movement, helmed by the son of a Pentecostal preacher from Virginia. D'Angelo's anticipated second album didn't come until five years later.

  Voodoo's most famous turn was its video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," the cold sweat goosebumps-and-grind track featuring a nude and ripped D'Angelo singing into the camera. The video, and the unwelcomed sex symbol status it brought the singer on tour, was the beginning of the end of his streak. (He told GQ in an intimate June 2012 profile that he wrote the song while thinking about his grandmother's cooking.) He wrapped his whirlwind Voodoo Tour in 2001 and promptly dropped off the map. Voodoo earned "best ever" nods from Rolling Stone and dozens other critics, while D'Angelo retreated and offered no performances or interviews. He made a few brief appearances on albums by other artists but otherwise had seemingly retired.

  He still made headlines — for assault charges in 2002, and for drunk driving and possession of marijuana and cocaine in 2005. Before that, he failed two stints in rehab. Last year, he pleaded guilty to a 2010 charge of soliciting a prostitute. If a third album was in the works, it didn't seem likely it would hit shelves any time soon.

  The Roots' bandleader Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, a longtime friend and collaborator, serving as D'Angelo's press mediator, has assured fans an album is on its way. Tentatively titled James River, it is due this fall after endless delays. First reports of a new album surfaced as early as 2009, with planned release dates in 2010, and again in 2011, while leaked studio sessions hit music blogs and even Amazon.com.

  His 11-date Europe-only Occupy Music Tour wrapped in February. He premiered some new songs, some of which might appear on James River. Before the tour kicked off, D'Angelo teased his fans with a studio-quality (non-bootleg) cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" that appeared online. Adding to his decade-long mystery, the track turned out to be eight years old — not remotely close to a glimpse at his latest efforts.

  Technically, D'Angelo's first U.S. performance in more than a decade — his first time on the stage, in front of fans — was at this year's Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, where he covered The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Curtis Mayfield, Ohio Players, and Sly & the Family Stone at a 90-minute midnight showcase with members of Parliament Funkadelic, The Roots and The Time. But he didn't perform any original material, just the covers. At Essence, D'Angelo isn't performing with that all-star lineup. He'll have his band, The Testimony, behind him — but it's his show, and New Orleans gets the first look at the singer's return to the mic.

  Other highlights on Friday's main stage include Charlie Wilson, Trey Songz, Keyshia Cole and The Pointer Sisters. On Saturday, Mary J. Blige, Kevin Hart and Ledisi perform. Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin headline Sunday's main stage. While it's D'Angelo's set that'll likely turn the most heads this weekend, Franklin's is another big moment for the festival.

  The Queen of Soul performed at the inaugural festival in 1995, and again in 2005, but her last scheduled appearances in New Orleans — at the 2009 and 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — were canceled. She told Essence earlier this month that she'll "perform everything I ever recorded." In August, Franklin, who has performed for more than 40 years, enters the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and she plans a new album in the fall with producer Clive Davis at the helm.

  In the Superlounge, performers include Dru Hill, Estelle, Eve, SWV, and locals Big Sam's Funky Nation, Luke James and the Original Pinettes Brass Band, among others.

  Hip-hop godfather Doug E. Fresh presides over the weekend's "block party," a free pre-show held in Champions Square from 3 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. each day. Guests include New Orleans artists Kourtney Heart and Dee-1, as well as MC Lyte and Spinderella.

  The festival also presents its Empowerment speaker series, focusing this year's theme on "The Power of Voice." Featured speakers include Steve Harvey, Vanessa Williams, Al Sharpton, Soledad O'Brien, Alice Randall and Tamar Braxton, among others.

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