The ESSENCE Festival of Culture returned to New Orleans in full force, bringing the heat as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip hop. To honor hip hop’s legacy, the 2023 ESSENCE Fest curated a lineup dedicated to the genre. For the first time in the festival’s history, all of the concert headliners were hip hop artists, including Ms. Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Megan Thee Stallion.
The star-studded lineup also featured Janelle Monáe, Jill Scott, Wizkid, Ari Lennox, Juvenile, Tems, Tobe Nwigwe, Jagged Edge, Coco Jones, Monica, and Muni Long. However, it was the specially curated homage to hip hop 50 that truly stole the show.
The stage became a time capsule of rap greatness with legendary performances by Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, KRS-One, Slick Rick, Jermaine Dupri, Big Boi, Gucci Mane, Lil Jon, Ludacris, T.I., Ice Cube, DJ Quik, E-40, Ice-T, J.J. Fad, The Lady of Rage, and Yo-Yo. Angie Martinez curated and hosted a special “In Real Life” all-female hip hop showcase featuring Eve, Mia X, Remy Ma, Salt-N-Pepa, and Trina.
Keeping the vibe lit were guest DJs Clark Kent, Kid Capri, and Spinderella. Not to mention the hilarious hosting talents of comedians Janelle James, Deon Cole, Affion Crockett, and Spice Adams.
The ESSENCE Festival is known for its amazing lineup of performers, and this year was no exception. Here’s a recap of some of the highlights from each concert night.
Night 1: Ari Lennox gets spicy, Juvenile sets it off, Janelle Monáe flashes the crowd
Tobe Nwigwe kicked off night one with a magnetic performance featuring tracks like “FYE FYE” and the viral anthem “TRY JESUS.” Joined by his wife, Fat, and their children, the Nwigwes brought live energy to the stage as they cranked that Soulja Boy and swag surfed.
Ari Lennox dominated the stage, commanding everyone’s attention with chart-topping hits like “Whipped Cream,” “BMO,” and “Shea Butter Baby.” Her performance of “Pressure” took a spicy turn, encouraging women to “bust that p***y open to this song.” Comedian and host Deon Cole joked that Lennox forgot it was an all-ages event, which made the crowd laugh out loud.
Initially excluded from the ESSENCE roster, Juvenile set the stage off with nostalgic hits from the ’99 and the 2000s. After a social media uproar, he was rightfully included in the lineup, solidifying his place in the festival. Juvie brought the heat with crowd favorites like “Ha,” “Set It Off,” and “Slow Motion.” Closing his set with the legendary “Back That Azz Up,” Juvenile proved why he is regarded as one of the most respected rappers in the game. Jagged Edge brought a wave of nostalgic R&B vibes to the festival with their timeless hits “Let’s Get Married,” “Gotta Be,” “Put a Little Umph In It,” and “He Can’t Love You,” leaving the audience in their feelings.
Night One’s hip hop celebration transported the audience back to the early years of New York rap. Legendary acts like The Sugarhill Gang as well as Grandmaster Melle Mel & Scorpio graced the stage, while Bone Crusher surprised the audience with “Never Scared.” Big Daddy Kane received a lot of love from the ladies, and Erick Sermon and Slick Rick delivered their classics. Doug E. Fresh had the crowd on their feet with his hits and led them in a spirited swag surf. Slick Rick joined Fresh for their iconic collaboration “The Show,” and Fresh brought out Lil Vicious to represent Caribbean culture. The night ended with a tribute to hip hop’s pioneers and a collective chant to Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.”
Janelle Monáe, another last-minute addition to the festival’s lineup, fearlessly took the stage by storm. Her set, featuring a mix of old hits and new songs from her latest album, The Age of Pleasure, reached a jaw-dropping moment when she exposed her pasty-covered areola during her rendition of “Yoga,” leaving the audience shocked.
In true L. Boogie fashion, Ms. Lauryn Hill arrived 40 minutes late to the stage. However, she made up for the delay with an unforgettable performance of her iconic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Most fans had already left due to her late morning set, causing them to miss out on a surprise appearance by Fugees member Wyclef Jean who, alongside Hill, performed “Fu-Gee-La,” “Killing Me Softly,” and “Ready or Not.”
Night 2: Big Freedia’s surprise appearance, Jermaine Dupri holds it down for the A, Missy’s electrifying performance
Saturday (July 1) night featured a blend of R&B and hip hop performances starting with Coco Jones and her chart-topping hit “ICU,” moving the ladies in the audience to sing at the top of their lungs.
The West Coast hip hop scene took over, as The Lady of Rage rocked “Afro Puffs” and J.J. Fad delivered their 1988 hit “Supersonic.” Yo-Yo brought the energy with her classic tracks and Ice-T impressed the crowd with his hits. DJ Quik showcased a string of his own offerings as well as his contributions to iconic tracks like Tupac’s “Ambitionz Az A Rider” and “Gangster Party,” to name a few. E-40 had the crowd moving to “Sprinkle Me” and “Tell Me When to Go.” Ice Cube and Dub-C brought the house down with hits including “Check Yo Self” and “It Was A Good Day.”
Monica took the stage and brought the energy up a notch with a surprise appearance from Big Freedia, who got everyone shaking. Monica then toned down the mood with heartfelt performances of “Before You Walk Out of My Life” and “Why I Love You So Much,” which had the girls belting!
Jermaine Dupri energized the crowd with snippets from his long list of classics. Curren$y joined him on stage to perform “Essence Fest” before Big Boi and Sleepy Brown took the stage to deliver crowd-pleasing hits like “Ms. Jackson” and “Int’l Players Anthem.” Gucci Mane and T.I. also thrilled the audience with snippets of their hit songs, while Ludacris joined Lil Jon for a memorable performance of Usher’s “Lovers and Friends.”
Jill Scott took a break from her album anniversary tour to deliver a gratitude-filled performance of “The Way,” “A Long Walk,” and “He Loves Me.” Scott expressed appreciation to her fans and professed her love and admiration for Missy Elliott before closing out with “Golden.”
There’s no doubt that Elliott was the star of night two. Her electrifying performance was dominated by lights and dance moves to hits like “One Minute Man” and “(The Rain) Supa Dupa Fly.” The energy soared as the icon performed “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It,” and “Pass That Dutch.” Special video tributes from Teyana Taylor, Lizzo, Chlöe Bailey, Fantasia, and Jazmine Sullivan added to the crowd’s excitement. At the end of her show, Elliott gave a heartfelt thanks as the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to the Hall of Famer.
Night 3: All hail the queens of hip hop, Lil Wayne pops out, Megan gets raw
Night three kicked off with Muni Long, who proved she’s a giant in the music industry. She belted songs she helped blow up — like Usher’s “You Got It Bad” and “Lovers and Friends” — before delivering her viral hit “Hrs & Hrs.”
Angie Martinez curated an “In Real Life” all-female showcase celebrating the influential queens of hip hop who have paved the way for today’s artists. The show began with Mia X performing snippets of hits like “Thinking Bout You” and “Bout It,” before shouting out the late Gangsta Boo.
Eve popped out to perform “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” and more. Trina brought her baddest chick energy as she delivered hits like “Who’s Bad” and “Pull Over,” while Remy Ma brought her signature style with songs like “Ante Up” and “Conceited.” Martinez introduced Salt-N-Pepa who pleased the audience with tracks like “Whatta Man” and “Push It.” In return, Salt-N-Pepa called on Martinez to close out the show with a performance of her verse from Lil Kim’s “Ladies Night.”
Tems nailed her ESSENCE Fest and New Orleans debut with “Higher” and “Free Mind.” Later in the night, she joined fellow Nigerian singer Wizkid on stage to deliver their smash “Essence.” Speaking of Wizkid, his performance was filled with hit after hit, including his collaboration with Drake, “One Dance,” and “Brown Skin Girl” featuring Beyoncé.
The biggest surprise of the night was a special performance by Lil Wayne. The New Orleans legend humbly delivered an abundance of hits, continually thanking the crowd who stayed on their feet for his entire set.
Megan Thee Stallion commanded the stage with her unapologetic, sizzling performance. Bringing the essence of a true Hot Girl, she unleashed tracks like “Freak Nasty,” “Big Ole Freak,” and “Plan B” and generously shared her stage time by inviting tons of fans to join her for an unforgettable experience of shaking a** together.
With memorable performances, iconic collaborations, and a celebration of hip hop’s rich history, the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture solidified its status as a premier event, celebrating the power, diversity, and enduring influence of Black music and culture.
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