Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder and More Pay Tribute to Prince at BET Awards

Jennifer Hudson Prince Tribute BET Awards - H Getty 2016
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Rather than honoring the late singer with a single performance, the show honored him with a series of performances throughout the evening.

Announcements of the BET Awards’ Prince tributes made it seem as if it would be a single performance involving D’Angelo, The Roots and others. But as Sunday's show began, it became clear that there would be a series of tributes throughout the night.

The first one came up just 35 minutes into the program, with Dave Chappelle wearing shades and a purple pocket square in his jacket and speaking in a surprisingly husky voice. “On April 21, we got that news, and literally our hearts were broken,” the comedian said as the camera flashed to Spike Lee (wearing a knit purple hat) and Samuel L. Jackson in the audience. “I was 11 years old when Purple Rain came out, and by the time I was 20, Prince had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. … We miss him dearly. And tonight we celebrate the rich legacy of this remarkable genius, who we are all so proud of.”

Chappelle then introduced his “old friends” the Roots, Erykah Badu and Bilal.

First up was Badu — wearing a black beret, a white fake fur stole and leather pants and what seemed to be a giant purple paper arm corsage — doing a flawless version of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from 1987’s classic Sign O’ the Times. Her sultry voice was perfect for the song’s jazzy melody and the band — who had played the song before at Prince tributes — matched the song's arrangement perfectly, even throwing in his vintage 808 electronic drum sound. What was most surprising was the number of celebrities in the audience (Taraji P. Henson, Jackson, BET’s Stephen Hill) who knew the words to this relatively deep cut.

Bilal — who goes so far back with The Roots and Prince tributes that he performed with them at one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999 — was next with Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones,” which he nailed in a near-flawless falsetto. However, and not to be cruel, the cameras flashed on Maxwell as the song began, which did make one wonder how he would have handled the song (especially in light of his gorgeous falsetto version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”).

One thing Maxwell almost definitely wouldn’t have done, however, was the sprawling, floor-humping and shrieking Bilal did at the end of the song, mimicking Prince’s moves from the film comically but respectfully. Bilal did not miss his moment. 

The next tribute saw Stevie Wonder and Tori Kelly teaming up for the Prince/Apollonia duet from Purple Rain, “Take Me With U.” The pair played the song fairly straight, with Wonder (wearing a checkered purple and silver jacket) handling the lead while Kelly -— clad in a pair of semi-transparent glittery high-waisted purple pants that were a Prince tribute on their own — brought a welcome heft to the high notes.

At the song’s end, Wonder — who had been playing a keyboard so small it looked like a court stenographer’s machine — moved over to a conventional synthesizer, Kelly picked up a guitar and Jennifer Hudson soberly entered from stage right as the opening chords of “Purple Rain” rang out.

Hudson took the song to church from the jump, stretching the verse’s melody while remaining respectful of it, and played it safe on the chorus. But on the second verse she tore the roof off, belting her heart out and hitting stratospheric notes. For the “whoo-oo-oo” coda, Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas (yes, the guy whose guitar Prince borrowed and broke on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2013) joined her at the front of the stage and shredded the solo as Hudson led the crowd through a sing-along, pushing her formidable voice to its limit — even when the mic was a foot from her face, it was loud — still vamping as she walked offstage, with the music fading vaguely, as it does on the album.

With two hours to go, it was unclear how the show would top that moment.

The answer came within half an hour, when Maxwell, after performing "Lake by the Ocean," the single from his forthcoming album BlackSUMMERS'Night, segued suddenly into Prince's "Nothing Compares 2U," updating the lyrics to address Prince: "It's been 7 hours and 66 days since you took your music away," "I went to the record store, Apple, Spotify too, and they told me, 'Boy you'd better try to make some music, which you can't do — 'cause Prince is the truth!'"  

He finished the song with a sustained note, on his knees, and his head bowed as the crowd rose for a standing ovation. 

Next up was Janelle Monae, whose classic style lent itself well to a medley that started with "Delirious," from 1999, before segueing into "Kiss." Keeping the funky vibe alive, a quick tour through "Pop Life" bled into an up-tempo "I Would Die 4 U" with a dance sequence that recalled Prince's famous rendition from the film Purple Rain. "I love you, Prince," she said at the song's conclusion, falling to her knees before strutting purposefully off stage.

The evening's big finale began on a note of some confusion: D'Angelo, possibly the greatest Prince influencee in the business, had been advertised as performing with longtime Prince collaborator Sheila E. But word spread during the show that he had bowed out (which would not be out of character for a man who took 14 years to complete his third album). So Sheila, a world-class drummer and no mean bandleader, led the tribute herself.

Accompanied by members of her band and several of Prince's backing singers (it looked like Liv Warfield and Elisa Fiorillo were onstage), she raced through a nearly 10-minute medley that changed direction as frequently and fluidly as the marathon medleys Prince played for years. 

It began with a song she knows well: The rap-inflected “Housequake," from Sign O' the Times, which was a staple of Prince's sets through much of his career but particularly Sheila's years with the band (1987-89). It then shifted into the first song she and Prince recorded together, 1984's "Erotic City," which was the B-side of the "Let's Go Crazy" single but went on to become an R&B radio hit of its own. Considering the chorus' lyrics read "We can f--- until the dawn," it was an odd sensation to see Jamie Foxx singing the song (although not those words) to his daughter in the audience.

The band shifted briefly into 1981's "Let's Work," then a verse of "U Got the Look," and then "A Love Bizarre," a song Sheila and Prince collaborated on for her 1985 album Romance 1600. It got two verses and then they slipped into Sheila's Prince-penned first hit, “The Glamorous Life,” then briefly into the instrumental “Soul Salsa.” Sheila donned a sparkly purple guitar for a minute of the Revolution showcase "America," and then hit the home stretch with Purple Rain's "Baby I'm a Star."

"Jerome, we ain't done!" she shouted as The Time's Jerome Benton (Morris Day's valet in the film) joined her for some dance steps at the front of the stage. The song ended with Sheila holding aloft one of Prince's signature lyre-shaped guitars, with tears streaming down her face as she stood beside Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia, while flower petals fell from the ceiling.

While the performance would have been stellar with D'Angelo -- he tore the roof off of Carnegie Hall at a Prince tribute there in 2012 -- Sheila did her longtime friend and collaborator proud.

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