What makes for a fitting tribute after an artist, who more than anything was known for being like no one else, is gone?
Does it involve as many stars as can fit on a stage, or should it be left to those who knew him best? Should the next generation carry the torch? Does the song choice matter? Is there such a thing as too soon? Or too late?
Is such a task, in the end, impossible?
Prince died on April 21 and of course the ensuing weeks were packed with intimate homages as entertainers of every stripe the world over covered him in concert, on late-night shows, on YouTube. But the Billboard Music Awards—which also happened to be the next awards show on the now endless schedule of awards shows to occur after his passing—was the first to host a prime-time, televised, official tribute to the revered artist.
Whether it was a fair assessment of what actually occurred on the stage or not, the Internet widely panned Madonna‘s rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince was more famous for writing than singing, and apparently the moment couldn’t be salvaged even by Stevie Wonder joining her onstage for “Purple Rain.” (Though you just can’t argue with a mass singalong to “Purple Rain,” Rihanna, The Weeknd and everyone else in the audience getting swept up in the emotional moment.)
Even BET got in on the shade, tweeting, “Yeah we saw that. Don’t worry. We Got You.”
So, game on!
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
First of all, to reiterate that no one, ever, quibbles with Stevie Wonder’s presence onstage, he’ll be joining the 2016 BET Awards’ mega-tribute to Prince tonight, so he gets another shot at being part of a moment that leaves people satisfied, rather than angrily tweeting their disappointment and indignation.
In fact, the BET Awards, which is promising “a tribute to remember,” is planning multiple moments to honor the visionary who transcended genre—as well as every other boundary that’s been cooked up to categorize people in general, let alone musicians and singers.
Which is ironic, considering how many people seem to think that a Prince tribute has to be a certain way. (The same thing happened to Lady Gaga after her perhaps overly kinetic David Bowie tribute at the Grammys, held almost exactly a month after his death, though Madonna was seemingly met with much more vitriol.)
But BET, which honored Prince with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, is making sure that the glaring flaws seen in the Madonna tribute are not duplicated there.
Some wondered, for instance, why no Sheila E. at the BBMAs?
Sheila E., check!
“It’s about his legacy,” Prince’s former drummer told Entertainment Tonight about the plan for tonight’s show, which will also feature D’Angelo, Janelle Monáe and The Roots. “Those songs, he left them for us forever. They are forever embedded in all of us, and I think we’re going to have a wonderful time.” She also showed off a new butterfly tattoo she had inked honor of her dear friend.
And while you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a pop star in the wake of Prince’s death who didn’t appreciate Prince’s genius (and we’re thinking some unannounced special guests may still end up being part of the mix this evening), he directly inspired The Roots, Monae and D’Angelo, the Voodoo artist having said that he’s been hooked on Prince since he was 5 years old.
D’Angelo, whose Tonight Show performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April” with Maya Rudolph went viral, is known for an ultra-smooth, sexy stage presence that has won him comparisons to Prince throughout his career, and in fact he and Questlove were brought together as Brothers in Arms thanks to Prince’s music.
D’Angelo caught a Fugees show featuring The Roots during which Questlove snuck in a drum intro from a Prince track, “and I felt like me and him were the only people in the whole place,” the “Brown Sugar” singer told OkayplayerTV a few years ago. “I don’t think anyone else knew what he was doing except me…That was it, that started the whole thing.”
Monae dedicated her set at Jazz Fest 2016 in New Orleans to her late mentor, telling the crowd, “Oh, we’re gonna party. We’re gonna celebrate Prince…He was free. He was fearless. He was music. He was rock and roll. He was on beat…I am because he was. We’re gonna break boundaries, just like he did.”
She closed the set with “Take Me With U” and “Let’s Go Crazy.”
And Stevie Wonder shared the stage multiple times with Prince, including at the 2006 BET Awards for a tribute to Chaka Khan.
A day after Prince died, he politely refused to sing a bit of his friend’s music while talking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, predicting he might “break down” if he tried.
He powered through the BBMAs, and we’re predicting more revelry and joy than sorrow when it comes time to remember Prince tonight, but not nearly enough time has gone by to preclude tears from any or all involved.
We’ll never forget Wonder, who had also performed at a memorial concert, choking up while performing “The Way You Make Me Feel” at the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert, which took place a few months after Michael Jackson died in 2009. It was easily one of the most touching, emotionally honest moments to come out of the countless tributes that poured forth for the late King of Pop.
If you ask what a fitting tribute would be for an artist like Prince, you’re left with an open-ended question.
But the 2016 BET Awards has ensured that all of the elements are in place to get as close as possible to providing an answer.