The 2016 BET Awards: A Tribute Fit for a Prince

Back in May, when Madonna paid homage to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards, her performance may have come from the heart, but not everyone thought it was a glam slam. The Internet outrage predictably started the moment Madonna’s appearance was even announced, but once she actually performed, the backlash became vicious. And one of the most high-profile detractors to pile on was BET, who literally within minutes of Madonna’s polarizing performance posted a shady (since-deleted) tweet teasing the network’s own planned (and presumably superior) Prince tribute, snarking: “Yeah, we saw that. Don’t worry. We got you.”

It was an audacious (and somewhat nasty) statement. But a month later, on Sunday night’s BET Awards, the network got serious, made good on that promise, and truly did stage the perfect purple celebration of Prince’s wide-ranging artistry – succeeding where the BBMAs (and also this year’s Grammys, with Lady Gaga’s poorly received David Bowie tribute) had failed.

Prince would have loved this. But we even bet Madonna, if she was watching, loved it as well. It was that good.

The BETs’ tribute actually comprised seven tributes, staggered throughout the ceremony’s three-and-a-half-hour broadcast. And even taking into account the mysterious, yet-to-be-unexplained no-show by previously advertised performer D’Angelo, there was a huge amount of impressive star power on L.A.’s Microsoft Theater stage – from Stevie Wonder, to Prince protégé Sheila E., to even comedian and occasional Prince impersonator Dave Chappelle (who introduced the night).

Here is our ranking of all of the evening’s lovesexy performances:

1. Sheila E.

Last month on The Talk, when songwriter/producer Linda Perry was discussing the above-mentioned controversial decision to have Madonna lead the BBMAs’ Prince tribute, Perry described Sheila E. as “not relevant.” So at the BETs, in the finale spot, Sheila hit the stage (flanked by the Time’s Jerome Benton and Prince’s dancer ex-wife Mayte Garcia) with something to prove – and she immediately silenced Perry and any other doubters.

Sheila’s medley didn’t include the obvious cover songs, which all the better represented her deep connection to Prince’s deep catalog. Her vivacious, percussive performance kicked off with Sign O’ the Times’ “Housequake” (which she often played back in the day, as a member of Prince’s band), segued into the wonderfully raunchy “Erotic City” (the “Let’s Go Crazy” B-side which originally featured Sheila’s backup vocals), and included 1981’s "Let’s Work,” 1987’s “U Got the Look,” Sheila’s own Prince-penned hit singles “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” the Revolution’s “America,” and Purple Rain’s fittingly titled “Baby I’m a Star,” which she belted entirely convincingly. But the most intense moment came when Sheila, tears filing her eyes, hoisted a signature-style curly-cue Prince guitar into the air, while Garcia stood stoically by her side.

This performance was powerful. It was a triumph. And, yes, it was completely and utterly relevant.

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2. Bilal

Funk-soul dynamo Bilal has been around for years, but he was still probably the least known performer among Sunday’s Prince-tribute participants. However, that may all change after this star-making tour de force. His breakaway-shirt-ripping, floor-rolling, crazy falsetto workout on the Purple Rain power ballad “The Beautiful Ones,” backed by his longtime comrades the Roots, was over-the-top in the grandest, most glorious way. Bilal definitely took full advantage of every second of his screentime and every square inch of stage space, and he was a total sexy MF – but his performance never came across as disrespectful. It was just, well, beautiful.

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3. Janelle Monae

The pint-size powerhouse – who once had the honor of having Prince guest on her critically acclaimed 2013 album The Electric Lady – boldly rocked a pair of Prince-at-the-1991 VMAs butt-baring chaps, faithfully reenacted Prince’s “Kiss” music video, and showcased some Jerome-worthy dance moves during a breathless, joyful medley that included the upbeat hits “Delirious,” “Pop Life,” and “I Would Die 4 U.” This was totally electric from start to finish.

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4. Maxwell

Under normal circumstances, taking artistic liberties with a Prince classic like “Nothing Compares 2 U” would be considered blasphemous. (We all saw how fans reacted when Madonna attempted to cover it at the BBMAs, after all.) But neo-soul crooner Maxwell’s lyrical revisions were genius. "It’s been seven hours and 66 days/Since you took your music away,” he began. Later, he sang, “I can play my radio station in any place I want/But nobody ever sounds like you,” and “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.” Truer words were never sung. Because really, nothing will ever compare 2 Prince.

5. Jennifer Hudson

J.Hud has become awards-show bookers’ speed-dial go-to singer when it comes to tribute performances (her Whitney Houston moment at the 2012 Grammys, Aretha Franklin homage at the 2014 BET Honors, and appearance at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial are but three standout examples). So at this year’s BETs, Hudson was unsurprisingly assigned Prince’s most iconic song, “Purple Rain,” with backup instrumentation by none other than Stevie Wonder, Tori Kelly, and Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas – and she unsurprisingly crushed it, of course. She transformed the cinematic classic into a fiery gospel hymn that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on BET’s Sunday Best. And Jennifer Hudson truly was one of this Sunday’s best.

6. Erykah Badu

Erykah, a close friend of Prince, was all decked out in a “U Got the Look”-era fluffy white coat and not-quite-raspberry beret, but everything else about her Roots-backed performance of 1987’s “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” was subtle and subdued. As a result, this song got lost in the shuffle among the night’s wilder, more theatrical moments. However, her sultry, classy performance of the Sign O’ the Times track deserves another viewing. Badu did her pal proud with this one.

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7. Stevie Wonder & Tori Kelly

This was the only homage of the night that didn’t quite work. The odd-couple pairing was just a mismatch, the performance was clumsy and seemed under-rehearsed, and Wonder even surprisingly flubbed some of the lyrics to “Take Me With U.” This wasn’t a disaster, but it certainly wasn’t the watercooler moment it could have been.

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At one point in the telecast, when showbiz matriarch Tina Knowles was accepting an award on behalf of her daughter Beyoncé, she said, “Tonight, the tribute was absolutely beautiful to Prince. Give it up for that. But… we lost a couple of our other greatest entertainers: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, gone way too soon. I’m hoping we will celebrate [musicians] while they are alive… Let’s give our flowers to our artists who give so much to entertain us. Let’s have them smell the flowers while they are still alive.”

It was a poignant point. The BETs’ multiple Prince tributes made for fantastic television, but hopefully no awards ceremony will have reason to stage a similar memorial-style production any time soon.

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