The Essence Music Festival celebrates its 15th anniversary over the Independence Day weekend, filling the Louisiana Superdome with three days of pop, rap, hip-hop and R&B from top names in the industry and a host of New Orleans musicians. The festival also presents a full slate of speakers during three days of free empowerment seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Following are previews of some of the performances on the Main Stage and in the Superlounges. A complete schedule can be found at www.bestofneworleans.com.
Friday, July 3, Main Stage
Overachieving pop/R&B singer Beyoncé Knowles is the real deal. The leggy diva's story began with a father not unlike Michael Jackson's: In Houston, Mathew Knowles built a recording studio from scratch, intent on boot-camping his young daughters into platinum pop stars.
Fast-forward past many Top 10 hits to 2005, when the World Music Awards named Beyoncé's pop trio Destiny's Child the best-selling girl group of all time. Today Beyoncé the solo artist is as ubiquitous a musical figure as Madonna was in the 1980s, right down to the Pepsi endorsement. Then again, no one would have asked Madonna to sing a cover of the R&B classic "At Last" at the presidential inauguration as Barack and Michelle Obama slow-danced.
Beyoncé's third solo outing, the double concept album I Am ... Sasha Fierce (Columbia), released in 2008, kicked off with the patently awful Joan Osborne-esque single, "If I Were a Boy." But while R&B hero Usher fell into moral decline with songs about accidentally impregnating his mistress, Beyoncé was promoting holy matrimony with "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." The song, like many others on the record, flips the script on Jamaican dancehall music, saddling Beyoncé's voice with most of the melodic responsibility. Her newer hits can consist of little more than a good bass drum and some electro squiggles, yet she sounds like the last thing she needs is auto-tune. She respectfully smoked Tina Turner during their duet at the 2008 Grammy Awards.
The Sasha Fierce single "Diva" then positioned Beyoncé as the only female rapper seemingly allowed on mainstream radio. And she can actually rap. Live, she shoots off more vocal and physical fireworks than even Mary J. Blige in her prime. For the Sasha Fierce tour, she's backed by the killer all-female band Suga Mama. — Welch
Friday, July 3, Main Stage
Much like Kanye West, who moved from his place behind the boards as a producer for Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records to a starring role in front of the mic, Shaffer Smith — aka Ne-Yo — ascended to his current perch atop the R&B realm off the strength of his pen. "Let Me Love You," Smith's first hit single (written in 2004 for the smoothie-crooner Mario), is now an obvious Ne-Yo creation, with silky and smart melodies, a seamless hook/verse structure and lyrics that deftly balance sweetness and seduction.
Those ingredients form the molten core of Year of the Gentleman (Def Jam), Ne-Yo's dapper 2008 tour de force. The album followed chart toppers In My Own Words (2006) and Because of You (2007) and still managed a seismic impact. A veritable singles factory, Gentleman was home to several of the year's most indelible compositions, "Closer," "Miss Independent" and "Mad" chief among them. On "Mad," the stock elements of the modern soul ballad — yearning pleads, a grand piano cranking out trebly arpeggio intros and chunky power chords during choruses — are reinvented via Ne-Yo's gift for the gently rousing vocal verse and the hair-raising, skin-prickling payoff hook.
While establishing himself as R&B's leading man in the new millennium, the 29-year-old singer/songwriter has continued to fill the coffers of pop stars whose names he helped make, recently gift-wrapping No. 1 hits for Beyoncé ("Irreplaceable") and Rihanna ("Take a Bow"). His tendency is to outclass the talents for whom he writes. — Pais
Friday, July 3, Superlounge
Solange is the more creative, adventurous but subtle little sister of pop monolith Beyoncé. At the pointed request of the Knowleses — currently the most powerful family in pop music — journalists rarely compare the two. But Solange's soulful-yet-modern music could easily brave such comparisons and come out looking good. Essentially, Solange makes music for people who like electro-pop but think her sister is corny.
At 15 years old, the well-trained Solange replaced an injured dancer in Destiny's Child. Behind the scenes, she was also writing songs for the famous girl group, as well as some of her big sister's larger hits. Solange later filled in singing for deserters of Destiny's Child, and finally broke into the music scene as a solo artist with Solo Star, an up-tempo R&B record bolstered by the Neptunes, Timbaland and a host of other super-producers.
It wasn't until 2003, however, that Solange finally took the reins to actualize her own musical vision, the ambitious and beautiful Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Geffen), in 2008. "I ran into Cee-Lo (of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley) in a club and begged him to come and listen to the demos in the car," Solange muses in her self-penned bio. The tunes clicked with Cee-Lo, who went on to co-write and record the Sol-Angel tracks "T.O.N.Y." and "Sandcastle Disco." Rather than drag her brother-in-law Jay-Z into the mix, Solange also tapped artistically astute guests like rapper Q-Tip, singer Raphael Saadiq and Boards of Canada.
Though she's beautiful, Solange presents herself more as an artist than a sex symbol. "With [my albums], I hope the listener is taken back to a time when music was melodic, sweet and soulful," she says. "A time when music was less provocative and came from a place of inspiration and storytelling. I hope to have followers with an intelligent ear and that are willing to take risks." — Welch
Saturday, July 4, Main Stage
As an artist who has amassed eight Grammys and gone quadruple-platinum, 51-year-old Anita Baker carved out a path for herself in the 1980s by winning over a racially diverse audience. She also bridged the gap between urban R&B and adult contemporary with her romantic, slow-burn classics "Sweet Love," "Caught Up in the Rapture" and "Same Old Love."
After releasing her fifth album Rhythm of Love in 1994, the Toledo, Ohio, native took a 10-year break from the recording industry to raise two sons with her husband. Tumultuous events in Baker's personal life preoccupied most of the next 10 years, including the death of her parents, reportedly being dropped from Arista Records and struggling to navigate her way through the rapidly changing world of R&B in the new millennium.
Unwilling to let that be an end to her career, she signed a two-album contract with Blue Note Records in 2002 and reemerged in 2004 with a new album, My Everything. Although sales were modest, Baker's hiatus had not taken away her velvety, alto timbre, nor the musical style that garnered success for the singer at the peak of her career. The album's lead single, "You're My Everything," earned Baker a No. 1 spot on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
In 2007, she was name-dropped by New Orleans' own Lil Wayne on a widely circulated mix tape ("Upgrade U Freestyle"), and after embarking on a 2008 tour, she announced plans to release a concert DVD and a live album. It is those qualities that make Baker's performance at this year's Essence Music Festival apropos. Given the ways the festival represents a convergence of various styles of popular black music, it is fitting that Baker — a successful crossover artist — has been included in the lineup. Her strong voice continues to command attention while remaining delightful in its refined sophistication. — Minor
Saturday, July 4, Main Stage
Fresh off five Grammy nominations and three Top 10 hits from her debut album Fearless (J Records), Jazmine Sullivan is conquering contemporary R&B.
With an innocent face and an infectious smile, it's hard to imagine this songstress breaking the glass along with breaking the heart of an ex-boyfriend in her song, "Bust Your Windows." (Sullivan has declined to say if the song comes from personal experience.) But it wasn't the risque behavior spoken about that captured the attention of fans nationwide. It was the fluidity of Sullivan's deep contralto vocals that rose and fell along the flamenco-inspired R&B beats that resonated.
At 22, Sullivan has long been an underlying part of her hometown Philadelphia's music scene, first capturing the attention of industry vets Missy Elliott and Stevie Wonder. It was her imaginative songwriting skills and vocals that scored her an audition with Clive Davis, head of J Records; she was signed on the spot. Sullivan released her debut single, "Need U Bad," a reggae-infused tune produced by Elliott, introducing the world to Sullivan's singing style, which is similar to contemporary R&B hero Lauryn Hill.
Fearless, released last September, soon climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard Top 100. Not letting her own burgeoning career slow her down, Sullivan has songwriting credits for Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia Barrino. — Prevost
Sunday, July 5, Main Stage
Teena Marie was already working on her latest album Congo Square (Stax) when she learned she had a connection to New Orleans.
Marie always had an affinity for the city and its music, but it wasn't until she was wrapping up work on her 13th studio album that a cousin told her their great-great-grandmother, Sarah Howell Colin, was married in the St. Louis Cathedral.
The aptly named album is full of sultry jazz ballads ("Harlem Blue"), bluesy scat melodies ("Rose 'n' Thorn") and the smooth rhythm-and-blues sound ("Milk n' Honey") Marie has cultivated over her 30-year career. In "Congo Square," she sings of Storyville and Louis Armstrong blasting his trumpet as if she's crooning about local cooking: "It ain't no file gumbo babe without the roux."
Born Mary Christine Brockert, she grew up in Los Angeles. At 19, she began her career with Motown Records. There she formed a longtime working and personal relationship with the late funk master Rick James, who wrote and produced her debut album Wild and Peaceful in 1979. From then on, the soul-singing diva has been known as Teena Marie.
Her hits, including "Portuguese Love," "Ooo La La La" and "Lovergirl," showcase her robust, innately soulful soprano vibrato. Audiences mistook the artist for a black singer, but over time got used to her curly blond hair, blue eyes and pouty lips, and her music skyrocketed to the top of the R&B charts.
Since her heyday in the 1980s, Marie has released two contemporary R&B albums under the Cash Money Classics label, La Dona (2004) and Sapphire (2006), after catching the ear of bounce producer Bryan "Birdman aka Baby" Williams. But getting back to her just-discovered familial roots in New Orleans has Marie singing a different tune. — Prevost
Sunday, July 5, Superlounge
New Orleanians got mad at Barbara Bush for opining that many exiled by Hurricane Katrina were better off. But the statement couldn't be truer for creative hip-hop duo the Knux, two brothers — Rah Al Millio and Krispy Kream — originally from eastern New Orleans who were washed away to Los Angeles. There they've hit major-label success likely wouldn't have had in the home of bounce music.
Unlike many other New Orleans rap albums that attained national recognition, the Knux's debut, Remind Me In 3 Days ... (Interscope), was self-produced, features no guest stars and doesn't dwell on machismo. The brothers even play instruments, displaying simplistic guitar chops that nonetheless trump Lil Wayne's. Though their level of creativity would be considered de rigueur for any indie rock band within today's hip-hop culture, the Knux are fiercely independent. The doubled vocals of single "Bang Bang" sound like TV on the Radio, and the repetitive chorus of "Cappuccino" (which gives props to "Creole coffee") is strictly old-school.
The Knux's electroclash-meets-Native-Tongues aesthetic on Remind Me in 3 Days ... travels just far enough outside the box that many modern rap fans don't even consider the duo "real" hip-hop. Or maybe it's because their clothes fit. "Who wants to be in a genre?" Knux brother Rah wondered aloud in a recent L.A. Weekly article. "Genres are for pussies." — Welch