2017’s Girl’s Trip drove Essence Music Festival attendance to near-record numbers this year (500 thousand, according to Essence), so it fits that cast member Queen Latifah join the festivities, this time as an artist.
This year was the first time that every concert has sold out. Each night featured a specially curated superset. Latifah led Saturday night with Ladies First: an hour and a half of her plus some of her badass sisters in hip-hop serving nostalgia on 100. She started her segment of the night with Dana Owens selections mixed in with jazz standards. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Essence is not a jazz festival, and the crowd cheered when Owens said she was ready to flip to Queen Latifah mode. She transitioned slowly with the jazzy “Just Another Day,” but then she got the party started: “I wanna bring out my friend Brandy.” The “I Wanna Be Down” remix, featuring all four artists, lead to a night full of surprises and jams.
Fresh off her vow renewal and pregnancy announcement, a glowing Remy Ma performed her still bangin’ No. 1 hit, “All the Way Up.” After performing, she acknowledged the women who paved the way for her in hip-hop, and as she ran down the names of these artists, many of whom were in the room, an army of dancers made their way onto the stage. Yes y’all, Missy is here. Missy Elliott is like a human explosion of energy! During the shows, people float back and forth between their seats at the main stage, the Superlounges (Essence Festival’s equivalent of a side stage), and the VIP lounge directly behind the stage. Within minutes of Missy coming out, fans were flocking back to their seats at a rapid pace, dancing in the aisles as they may their way. Missy kept people on their feet through her most danceable hits including “She’s a Bitch,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch” and “Lose Control.”
Now the crowd was primed, and when surprise guests Salt-N-Pepa came out with “I’ll Take Your Man,” there wasn’t a still body in the seats. After S-N-P’s set, our mistress of ceremonies returned to the stage and invited another surprise friend to join her. Of course, for a set titled Ladies First, there must be a performance of “Ladies First.” Latifah and her European partner, Monie Love, took us back to 1989.
Latifah called all the artists of the night back to close with “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which Roxanne Shantè popped in at the last minute to join them. The night had been a time portal, transporting us back to an era of light, fun energy and party vibes in hip-hop, and the women were all still at the top of their performance game. As they left the stage, clearing way for headliner and Queen, Mary J. Blige, the only criticism was that there wasn’t more.