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The 20th anniversary of the Essence Festival 

Alex Woodward on Essence, with this year’s special headliner: Prince

click to enlarge After dropping a bunch of teasers about forthcoming music, Prince performs at Essence Festival.

Photo by Nicolas Genin/Creative Commons

After dropping a bunch of teasers about forthcoming music, Prince performs at Essence Festival.

Prince, the Purple One, is having a moment. That's saying a lot for a man who has spent three decades finding new ways to surprise with every evolution. But the last few years have seen a particularly Internet-friendly resurgence of the seemingly ageless pop persona.

  First, consider the timing for the release of the album art for the song "This Could Be Us... But You Playin," which takes the Internet meme's "white block text over image" format and slaps it on a Prince album. The image is the classic shot (zoomed in) of vintage Purple Rain-era Prince with Apollonia on his motorcycle. For a guy who seemingly hates the Internet and famously, or infamously, scrubs YouTube of any live performances or music videos, it seems like his last-laugh comeuppance — Purple Rain is, as of last week, 30 years old, and still a great album. The album's anniversary (and Prince's return to Warner Bros.) also coincides with Prince's first appearance at Essence since 2004 — a sort of 10-year reunion. He headlines the Superdome main stage at 10:30 p.m. Friday, July 4.

  Then there's "Breakfast Can Wait," the single that broke Prince's airwave silence early last year. The album art is simply a screengrab of comedian Dave Chappelle, dressed as Prince in the famous Chappelle's Show sketch about Charlie Murphy's visit to Prince's house to play basketball and eat pancakes. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last month, Chappelle called it a "Prince judo move": "You make fun of Prince in a sketch he'll just use you on an album cover. ... That's checkmate, right there." Another judo move, perhaps, is Prince's impeccable spotlight-grabbing timing to drop album hints, artwork and anniversaries while building momentum just before exploding as he headlines the Essence Festival's 20th birthday.

  And then there's his backing band, 3rdEyeGirl, which began supporting him last year. Prince also used the band to join Twitter (despite there already being an exceptional "Prince" Twitter account, @princetweets2u, in which "Prince" sent perfectly hilarious, mysterious, gentle and luxurious mes- sages, including, "thank u i am going 2 fly away in a hot air balloon now have a good nite"). Somehow, the fake wasn't as funny as the real thing — @3RDEYEGIRL's first "selfie" is a picture of smoke against a black background.

  All of these teases have proved that Prince has remained prolific, despite not releasing any full-length albums since 2010, a sort of four-year "slump" considering his pace of 25 albums in 35 years. He released a dozen singles with 3rdEyeGirl in 2013, and he anticipates a 2014 release for that band's tentatively titled Plectrum Electrum.

  In typical Prince fashion, he invited a few Minnesota reporters to his Paisley Park home last month to preview tracks from yet another album, but Prince wasn't even there. Instead, over the phone, Prince told Star-Tribune reporter Jon Bream (who had waited to speak to him for a couple of hours) the wonderfully contradicting statement: "Every No. 1 song, every Top 10 song, every song in the Top 40 is at least six months old. ... We should be able to make music and put it out now," followed by "I don't need to be on the radio. ... I've been on the radio all my life."

  Prince's successor-hopeful Janelle Monae also is performing at this year's event — leaving speculation (and anticipation) that the pair will perform together. Prince appeared on her second album, The Electric Lady, on "Givin Em What They Love" and remixed "Q.U.E.E.N.," featuring another Essence star, Erykah Badu. When Monae opened for Prince at a 2013 gig in Connecticut, he stepped on stage to proclaim The Electric Lady "the best album" of the year.

  Essence has packed its 20th anniversary with a lineup of all-star performers encompassing hip-hop, R&B, funk, soul and beyond. Other artists performing at the 2014 event include Nas, Nile Rodgers, Lionel Richie, Mary J. Blige, the Roots, Ledisi, Jill Scott, Trey Songz and Charlie Wilson. The festival also has a lineup of guest speakers, from Alicia Keys to former mayor Marc Morial to the Rev. Al Sharpton, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

  Prince's Internet evolution continues at Essence. Prince has partnered with Rebuild The Dream for the weekend-long #YesWeCode Hackathon, the fest's first, which will pair 200 developers with young people to build mobile and web apps geared toward helping their communities. Find more information at www.yeswecodehack.com.

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