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BETX and BET Awards diary: Everything you need to know

From Jesse Williams to Jennifer Hudson, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ to Metro Boomin’ — it was an epic weekend

It was the elephant in every room throughout BET Experience (BETX) weekend in Los Angeles: The network had all but boxed itself into a corner with regard to delivering a moving tribute to the late artist Prince — after tossing singer Madonna’s Billboard Awards performance clean under the bus last month. “It’s a lot of pressure, but we’re up for the job,” BET Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer Debra Lee told Ebony magazine last week. “I haven’t heard so many people excited about a tribute since Michael Jackson passed. People are excited to see a tribute to Prince that really reflects his importance.” BET knew what it had to do.

And the 2016 BET Awards truly boiled down to three powerful, but separate, moments, all of which related to Prince in various ways. Actor/activist Jesse Williams’ impassioned speech defined the night and brought to the stage the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “This award is not for me,” he said after accepting BET’s Humanitarian Award. “This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activist, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. It’s kind of basic mathematics: The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.” It was a talk that would have won Prince’s co-sign. The speech moved everyone, including artist Justin Timberlake, who felt immediate backlash on social media — many folks still feel he owes singer Janet Jackson an apology, and folks quickly and fiercely reminded him of his convenient cultural appropriation.

“It’s kind of basic mathematics: the more we learn about who we are and how we got here the more we will mobilize.” — Jesse Williams

But the night was far bigger than Timberlake. It was about The Artist. And another moment Prince would have loved was when his creative collaborator, Oakland’s own Sheila E., hit the stage. The legendary singer/percussionist’s medley of Prince songs made 2016 feel like the late-1980s. By the end of her performance, Sheila Escovedo, as barefoot as Beyoncé had been at the top of the show, had the arena on its feet, jamming out, remembering the titan of a man she first met in 1978. The emotion was written all over her face as the crowd blessed her with a well-deserved standing ovation. And most importantly, you got the sense the set was therapeutic for Sheila E. — it allowed her to connect with Prince one last time in the most organic way possible.

The Purple Rain cover from singer Jennifer Hudson topped even the 2013 tribute to artist Charlie Wilson. It was unlike anything the BET Awards has ever produced. Hudson sported a hooded, white ensemble that paid homage to Prince’s outfit at the 2005 People’s Choice Awards. Tears flowed down the faces of those in attendance— and even more were weeping at home. Memories of Prince replayed in our heads, in particular the connection to Purple Rain, a song that changed the life of anyone who has ever fully immersed him or herself in its lyrics, instrumentation and delivery.

Hudson tapped into Prince’s spirit for the performance. And if you closed your eyes, and imagined Prince playing the guitar alongside her, it’s a heavenly vision. Sixty-seven days have passed since Prince, in fact, passed. But at least for one more night, for one more moment, The Purple One lived on through Hudson. Beyoncé and rapper Kendrick Lamar’s opening performance set the stage for an electric night. Williams injected the bravery, reminding a room full of celebrities the fight — the real fight — wasn’t for album of the year. Hosts Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross gave the evening more than its fair share of laughs. But Hudson gave the 2016 BET Awards its vitality.


Here’s a recap of other events that took place over the weekend.

The Nostalgic: Marcy Projects Goes Hollywood

By nothing more than sheer coincidence, BET Awards weekend in Los Angeles aligned with one of the more anticipated anniversaries in rap. Reasonable Doubt, the critically acclaimed, classic debut from Jay Z, celebrated its 20th birthday this past weekend (June 25). To commemorate the event, Shawn Carter’s former business partner Kareem “Biggs” Burke unveiled the Reasonable Doubt pop-up shop on North Fairfax Avenue. And at least for a weekend, Hollywood had all the community feeling of Brooklyn, New York’s Marcy Projects. The shop functioned as a replica of Jay Z’s old apartment. Vintage photos of Jay Z and the early Roc-A-Fella Records days were plastered on the wall alongside movie posters. DJ Franzen provided the soundtrack for the evening, and there was something amazing about hearing Can I Live while standing “in” Jay Z’s old kitchen. DJ Khaled, rapper Meek Mill and producer Irv Gotti attended the Friday event. “I was 4 when this album came out and it’s still my favorite album of all time,” said one attendee who waited outside for hours to get in. “I hope Jay shows up.”

Jay Z did show up, the next day. For years, the triumvirate of Jay Z, Biggs and producer Dame Dash were the standard of hip-hop entrepreneurship. And seeing Jay Z and Biggs together, even if only for a split second, genuinely enjoying each other’s company in a room resembling their most humble beginnings, while celebrating an album now viewed as Shakespeare-esque, coined by rapper Killer Mike — it was a big deal. Jay Z and Biggs shook up the world in their own way. Not bad for a one-time, self-proclaimed “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.”

You got the sense the set was therapeutic for Sheila E. — it allowed her to connect with Prince one last time in the most organic way possible.

The Dope: Metro Boom

There were many events in motion during BETX, but another true highlight of Friday night was producer/DJ Metro Boomins show at The Novo. The entire time in the Uber from the Jay Z pop-up I wondered, How exactly is Metro going to carry this show by himself and it’s not technically a party? The moment he appeared on stage, with Kanye West’s Father, Stretch My Hands Pt.1 playing, I had my answer. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about hearing Metro Boomin’ want some more. It’s more “audio aphrodisiac” than catchphrase at this point. What was slated as a rap concert quickly morphed into choir rehearsal. People jumped around and stomped, chanted lyrics at the top of their lungs and generally had a good time partying with people they had never met.

Shout out to Metro for paying homage to rapper Waka Flocka’s 2010 Flockaveli album, too, as the second-biggest reaction of the night came when he dropped Waka’s track Grove St. Party. The balcony shook! And even Metro took a second to take in the moment from behind the turntables, smiling as crowds moshed and dabbed. From there, the lights went off. And by the time they came back on, Future was already halfway through his first verse of Stick Talk. The venue went absolutely haywire. And it would be the first of three different performances for Future.

Future’s job must be easy these days. It’s not like he has to rap much. The crowd does it for him. He ran through a sequence that included tracks Karate Chop, Jumpman, Thought It Was A Drought, Where Ya At and March Madness, the latter of which has since supplanted itself as one of the truly sublime rap songs of the decade. Ultimately, the night belonged to Metro who, by the time his set ended at 2 a.m., had attendees not only leaving sweaty, but hoarse, too. And still rapping his records as they poured into the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

The Exclusive: #EpicFest

Saturday was the busiest day of the week with events all around town. The most unique one was #EpicFest. Held on the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot in Culver City, the running concert moonlighted as a showcase from the label with performances from DJ Khaled, Future, rappers French Montana and Yo Gotti and more. Open bars —check. Endless Shake Shack — I repeat, endless Shake Shack — check. The crowd, which swelled as the evening went along and the “orange juice and Patrons” turned into “whatever you have left just mix it.” Turn one way and there’s rapper Drake’s father shooting a Snapchat video with DJ Khaled. Turn the other way and there’s rap group OutKast mixing and mingling with fans and taking pictures with music executives L.A. Reid or Sylvia Rhone. #EpicFest felt like a lost scene from the HBO series Entourage. Like the middle seasons, too, when the series was at its apex.

Final Thoughts

What to retire: The Fresh Prince’s high school jersey

Let the record show that BET Awards weekend 2016 is the weekend when actor Will Smith’s Bel-Air Academy basketball jersey from the 1990s show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air officially jumped the shark. Don’t get it twisted: The jersey is tough and the concept behind wearing it is even tougher. The whole point of wearing a jersey, in many cases, is the exclusivity behind it. And needless to say, Smith’s “high school jersey” lost its exclusivity this BETX weekend.

That fire: 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne had Staples Center lit

The last time Staples was this loud, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points in his career swan song back in April. As headliners for BETX’s biggest concert, rap’s newest tag team, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne (or 2 Wayne as I like to call them), held court in a way that would have made Bryant proud. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz perfected the give-and-go approach as both alternated between their endless string of hits. Attendees stood throughout the entire performance — some even jumping up and down in their seats. A record in particular that captivated? The performance of their 2007 smash, Duffle Bag Boy. Lil Wayne’s chemistry with 2 Chainz is rivaled only by his chemistry with Drake. Even the ushers lost their cool as the pair volleyed back and forth belting hits like Rich As F—, Bandz A Make Her Dance, I’m Different, No Worries, and their 2016 banger, MFN Right.

The concert also cemented two truths.

  1. I’ve said it before and really don’t mind saying it again: The run 2 Chainz is on in 2016 has been nothing short of a pleasure to watch, but even more of a pleasure to party to. As an artist, 2 Chainz is in a truly comfortable space right now. And if it results in a solo project later this year, we could be looking at a strong album of the year candidate.
  2. Look, I get it. Lil Wayne’s music hasn’t returned to the dominance it had seven years ago. Chances are it may never, which is why his run from 2004-2009 is one of the most dominant hip-hop has ever seen and will ever see. And the seemingly never-ending internal civil war between him and Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman is, if nothing else, depressing as hell. But Lil Wayne is still a living rap legend, with a stage presence that hasn’t lost one bit of its edge and a catalog overflowing with hits.

The Nightcap: The Roots’ jam session

The legendary crew kept the crowd engaged on Saturday with a mixture of fun — including its cover of Drake’s hit Hotline Bling — and homage with an emotional tribute to Prince. But, of course, it wouldn’t be a Roots show without its fair share of surprises. Rapper T.I. performed hits like his 2008 Whatever You Like and 2005’s Bring ‘Em Out. By far, though, the two highlights were band The Internet and rapper Common. What had originally been a jam session turned into the after-hours spot. Couples slowly grinding on each other and falling in love all over again with their eyes, as The Internet’s front woman Syd The Kid’s sleek vocals gave the performance a speakeasy feel. Meanwhile, Common’s brief time on stage alongside Roots emcee Black Thought led to an inspiring performance of 2000’s The Light.

What was slated as a rap concert quickly morphed into choir rehearsal. People jumped around and stomped, chanted lyrics at the top of their lungs.

The celebrity game: brick city

If there was anything to be considered a letdown, it had to have been Saturday’s celebrity basketball game. And, honestly, it wasn’t even the game itself. Perhaps the most impressive quality about rapper Snoop Dogg as an athlete is that he has the endurance of a man who hasn’t chain-smoked blunts for the past quarter century. He’s not a bad finisher around the rim, either. Meanwhile, the two best players on the court — at least in terms of points scored — were boxer Floyd Mayweather and R&B artist Tank. Though, to be fair, the boxer had plenty of open lanes to the basket because, well, people played matador defense on Mayweather out of intimidation. And from warm-ups, it was beyond evident Tank had his sights set on MVP honors. Maybe (puts shades on), he felt he “deserved” it, and certainly stated his case with a strong second-half performance. But having a dunk contest between quarters felt like overkill. It hijacked any momentum the game created. Also, God bless the concept of #BlackLove and peace and blessings to the couple who got engaged during the game. But on top of an ill-fated placement of the dunk contest, a proposal between quarters felt staged.

One mishap didn’t ruin an otherwise fruitful weekend, though. The company deserves a ton of credit for what it set out to accomplish this weekend, especially considering the tremendous pressure that came with honoring a musical icon.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.