Teddy Riley Brings New Jack Swing to Essence Fest, but Misses The Mark
This year, each night of Essence Music Festival featured a superset packed with legends and hits on the event's main stage. On opening night, The Roots hit the stage with special appearances from Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and more. Saturday was Ladies Night, and Queen Latifah brought out Brandy, Salt-N-Pepa, Monie Love, and more of her friends for a special Ladies First set. On Sunday, the closing night of the festival, it was Teddy Riley’s turn to present a New Jack Swing set befitting the architect himself. Sadly, a combination of sound issues, choppy transitions and overproduction put a damper on what should have been a legendary hour and a half.
Riley opened with Kool Moe Dee (“Wild Wild West”), Hi-Five (“I Like”) and SWV (“I’m So Into You” and “Right Here: Human Nature remix”), a strong start of old-school faves. Then the lights went low, and the intro to “My Prerogative” started. Teddy asked the crowd to welcome to the stage…Tank? TANK? Bobby Brown was in town to promote BET’s upcoming Bobby Brown Story, yet Durrell Babbs is on stage singing “My Prerogative”? This “tribute” period, of sorts, continued with the music Riley created with Michael Jackson for Dangerous. The crowd waited in anticipation to see who would emerge from backstage to stand in for the gloved one, and out came… Ginuwine. Ok, ok, he’s a dancer. Yes, this makes sense. Until he started singing “Remember the Time.”
This is a good place to mention the set was plagued with sound issues. Mics were low, the balance between music and vocals was off. It was so bad that Teddy and his fellow Wreckx-N-Effect members went on a mini-rant about the sound man in the next segment, between “Rump Shaker” and “New Jack Swing.” The rant led to marginal improvement.
After a very awkward segue into MC Lyte performing Queen Pen’s “Party Ain’t a Party” that involved a moment of remembrance for Left Eye (who Riley did not produce), things felt more stable for the Blackstreet moment. Riley’s current iteration of the group performed as BS2 (Chauncey Black owns the “Blackstreet” copyright) and featured original group lead vocalist, Dave Hollister along with two other people (no shade). The crowd finally relaxed and trusted they were about to get the hits they wanted, sung by the people they expected, and two-stepped it out to “Don’t Leave Me” and “Before I Let You Go.” Blackstreet closed out with “No Diggity” (of course) but then went into a rendition of 80s New Wave band, Tears for Fears’ “Shout” during which Dave let the church out, and Riley rallied against injustice. It was confusing. Much of Riley’s full superset was confusing, as he added dancers, sound effects, remixes, and additional elements that nobody expected or necessarily needs for this music. When a set full of old-school greats is promised, fans want the versions they know so that they can sing along loudly. They want to restore the feeling.
Finally, it was time for Guy. Let’s cut to the chase: Aaron Hall’s voice is, sadly, gone. However, the second Hall, Damien, has clearly been in the gym (he was shirtless through almost the whole performance) and kept the energy up playing hypeman for the group. Teddy added in more vocoder (better known as autotune) to Guy’s hits—to all the music during the night, actually. He started using the production method heavily and regularly during the Blackstreet era, and it was an unnecessary element for these classics. They ran through the must-dos, “Groove Me,” “Goodbye Love,” “Piece of my Love,” “Let’s Chill,” and then Hall insisted on doing one of his solo hits. Everyone looked around awkwardly as he forced out a verse and chorus of “I Miss You.” There may have even been a couple of “Take your time” shouts from the audience in sympathy and encouragement from the crowd.
Guy finished up with the “I Like” remix featuring the unnecessary dancers (they weren’t even B girl-type, New Jack Swing-style dancers. They were more like a pro sports dance squad; a lot of hair swinging and tight hits on the moves, but no flava.) Then the Superdome was blessed with one of the greatest “old-school” entertainers in the game, as Dougie Fresh took the stage to perform one of Riley’s first productions, “The Show.” The energy levels went up; people got their dance on in the aisles. Dougie to the rescue.
No New Jack Swing tribute is complete without Keith Sweat. Make It Last Forever was one of the first full new jack swing albums and put Riley solidly on the map as a producer. Sweat stays working, so there were no struggle vocals or awkwardness when he took the stage.
Overall, this Teddy Riley-curated night felt like a roller coaster that never hit any peaks high enough to merit raising your arms above your head and screaming. It also felt like Riley was trying to upgrade the music and performances for 2018 when people attended in search of 1993 energy. Riley is touring with this New Jack Swing show. Hopefully, he’ll dial down on the production extras to let the nostalgia shine through.