Essence Festival’s Superdome stage alternated from a place of worship to a party, and there’s little if any distinction between the two, whether it’s a prayer for love or to a higher power, or as a call to action.
By 11 p.m. on the festival’s closing night on Sunday, July 8, Janet Jackson prepared to carry the momentum from the stage’s post-gospel high into a stark reminder of the present outside the Dome, a reminder to carry the festival’s holy union of a weekend into a humanitarian mission.
Janet Jackson’s powerful opening montage gave an awakening of current affairs happening in the world today. The Dome’s screens filled with grim, swift edits cutting from clips from the Syrian civil war, Palestine and Sandy Hook to headlines and sound bites from reports of police killings of unarmed black men, rendered in black and white as a slow veil of blood-like red dripped from the top of the screen, then surrounding the words “We Want Justice.”
Essence’s closing night is its own distinct event. People are buoyed by a few days of concerts, seminars and parties, a bit tired but determined to see the weekend through, and on a surreal high from walking around in overwhelming crowds and among friendly strangers, all silently competing in the city’s best and brilliant fashion show.
Janet Jackson belted out the last bars of “Rhythm Nation” in the wee hours of Monday morning (July 9), bringing both her breathtaking concert and Essence Festival 2018 to a triumphant close. The pop icon had packed the Superdome from the floor to the ceiling, leaving little doubt that this year’s Essence would challenge all past attendance records.
In her characteristically breathy whisper, Jackson sang classics from “Skin Game” to “Nasty” to “That’s the Way Love Goes” to “Scream.” Dressed in a kicky black costume that combined elements of a Victorian gown with a football uniform, the 52-year-old proved that she’s still in command of the angular, athletic dance moves that inspired a generation of stars from Beyonce to Britney Spears
Whether sensually tossing her mane of bronzy hair, seductively straddling a chair, or Apache dancing with a male member of her troupe, Jackson demonstrated her well-known allure as if it were Super Bowl XXXVIII again, minus the wardrobe malfunction.
Jackson — beginning another leg of her State of the World tour at Essence, where she performed in 2010 and returned to close in 2018 — covered a lot of ground in her nearly 30-song set, an energetic and emotional, tightly executed and heavily nostalgic retrospective with Jackson’s eyes on carving out her place in the future.
Her Essence performance can sort of condense the festival into a single event, highlighting a career placing Black empowerment, women’s rights, social justice, sexual freedom, her sincere vulnerability and vision of humanity into a pop cultural nexus. It’s there that she launched her set, entering with the live debut of “The Skin Game” and “The Knowledge,” both from her 1989 turning point Rhythm Nation 1814, whose themes still clearly resonate as a thrilling pop vehicle with a raised fist.
She closed that opening salvo with “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance,” then sprinted through a medley of “Nasty” with Rhythm Nation’s “Miss You Much” and “Alright,” closing with a short ride through a funky “You Want This” before the stage cut to black, her first break for applause and a breath. When the lights returned, they revealed her standing as she did before they left, with just the sound of her breath through her wireless mic.
Her band and backup singers amped up Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ textured arrangements, filling the Dome (and its unfortunate echo) with the big blasts behind Control’s “Control,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and “The Pleasure Principle,” finding chunky grooves in “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “When I Think of You.”
Jackson also brought out rare live cut “Runaway,” broadcasting its dated music video graphics from the Dome’s screens. Her iconic videos appeared throughout the set, a dose of heartwarming nostalgia that’s less “Hey, remember the ‘90s?” and more of a bridge from the past. (Except for the extremely dated clips from 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps playing with that film’s “Doesn’t Really Matter.”) The songs are timeless; so is Jackson.
She remained at the top of the stage with breathless, effortless-looking choreography — backed by and shared with dancers in black-and-white athletic gear, alongside her first outfit in satin pants with a fringe loop on her left hip — moving in lock-step with each song, no redundant steps, no wasted beat.
But at the front of that performance were graceful, fluid popping and locking, the distinct Jackson Family gestures and affectations — a Fosse slide, an extended hand, rolling shoulders, a nod.
After a brief intermission, Jackson returned from stage left, straddling a chair in an Alexander Wang football jersey with thigh-high socks and a red plaid shirt wrapped around her waist, the crowd rushing to her low-rise platform with hands in the air, snapping photos and videos and their fingers to the slinky beat of Control’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).”
It was playfully followed by “Anytime, Anyplace,” with strains of Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” slipping between the notes, both a cameo collaboration and another reminder of her place in the present.
Recent single “No Sleeep” fit effortlessly among other classics, like the Joni Mitchell-sampling “Got ‘til It’s Gone” and Janet’s sensual R&B hit “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
She paused the action to address the crowd in a tearful tribute to her father Joe Jackson, who died last month, and signaled her next chapter in the wake of his death and the death of brother Michael.
“I didn’t know if I should cancel this festival or cancel the entire tour,” she said. “I think my father would’ve said, ‘Janet, please finish what you’ve started. And I will be there with you every step of the way.’”
She dedicated The Velvet Rope’s dance hit “Together Again” to her father, a song she dedicated in 2010 to Michael, and led the crowd in a synchronized bounce and a singalong with its chorus: “Everywhere I go, every smile I see, I know you are there, smiling back at me.”
It would’ve made a strong closing, sending the audience on a high for the festival’s finale, but Jackson had more to say — she performed “What About” as scenes of partner violence and abuse played out in dance duets, and sang a sort of duet with Michael for their 1995 hit, a fairly busy song that unfortunately was lost in the sound-suck of the Dome.
She closed with anthems “Rhythm Nation” and “State of the World,” returning to her opening statement and the title of her tour.
One would think she’d name it after Unbreakable, her 2015 album that named another tour, and it still fits the Jackson of 2018. Instead she returned to Rhythm Nation, the beat she started and is playing every step of the way.