Jennifer Hudson testifying, Bilal writhing around on the stage and Janelle Monae cutting loose in ruffles, feathers and pants with cutout derierre panels.
Throw in a medley led by Sheila E, with cameos from the Time’s Jerome Benton, a dancer named Mayte Garcia and that special purple guitar — unplayed, just held aloft at the end.
That’s how you do a tribute to Prince.
Who needs Madonna? She fumbled the Prince salute on the Billboard Awards last month. The BET Awards did it right when honoring the late music god on Sunday: Not one segment, not two — but five segments involving eight different singing stars throughout the 3½ hour program.
Unlike Billboard, BET didn’t necessarily reach for big names. Stevie Wonder was called upon for both awards shows, adding class to both affairs. BET opted for passion, performers who could command the moment and summon something that evoked Prince besides his lyrics and melodies.
The always eccentric Erykah Badu went for the obscure “Ballad of Dorothy Parker” before giving way to Bilal, who had a Princely falsetto for “The Beautiful Ones” that ended with him rolling around on the stage screaming “I want you.”
The second tribute matched a purple-clad Wonder with newcomer Tori Kelly in her high-waisted purple bell bottoms duetting on “Take Me with U.” Then Hudson waltzed out in a short white dress with a hood and took “Purple Rain” to church, gospelizing like an uplifting prayer.
Like Madonna, Maxwell took on “Nothing Compares 2 U” but he did it with style and a little reworking of the lyrics, by closing with: “It’s been 7 hours and 66 days since you took your music away.”
Monae, whom Prince adored, certainly channeled his sartorial style, frenetic energy and kinetic dancing during her knockout medley of “Delirious,” “Kiss,” “Pop Life” and “I Would Die 4 U.”
But leave it to Sheila E, Prince’s former protégé and girlfriend, to close the evening with celebrative style. Supported by a cast that included several former Prince backup singers and his first wife Mayte, Sheila did the kind of ferociously funky medley that Prince was known for.
In eight exciting minutes, she and the ensemble tore through eight songs, starting with “Housequake” and ending with “Baby I’m a Star,” tears rolling down Sheila’s cheeks as she stood next to Mayte and held one of Prince’s guitars over her head.
No discussion of this year’s BET Awards would be complete without mentioning actor/activist Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame giving an impassioned speech about civil rights in today’s world and Beyoncé opening the program with a stunning performance of “Freedom,” while splashing in a pool and rain and eventually being joined by Kendrick Lamar, who splashed as fiercely as he rapped.
And Beyoncé’s mom, Tina Knowles, had a fitting comment for the occasion. When accepting the viewers’ choice award for Beyoncé (who had already jetted off to a London concert), she acknowledged Prince as well as Michael Jackson and Whtiney Houston and said: “Let our entertainers smell the flowers while they’re alive.”