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Pop Playground
BET Steps Out

n its fourth annual awards show, BET has achieved what few award shows can claim—they made it fun. A far cry from last year's somewhat disappointing show (Lil Kim hadn't rehearsed, Beyonce saved her best stuff for MTV and the Grammies), BET's humble celebration came of age with Monique as mentor. Awards shows often bring out the worst of entertainment: the shallowness, the politics, the self-importance, the self-aggrandizement, and self-loathing. Leave that for the white shows. The BET that emerged three hours after Kanye West's initial salvo of fire-and-brimstone looked like the most important media outlet in America. And with a year that saw the first all-black Billboard Top Ten, it seemed like everybody relevant was at the Kodak Theater.

The main reason awards shows suck is the awards. The rich and famous gather to celebrate their wealth and fame—who needs further recognition? The winners are obvious choices or unworthy flukes, and no one puts any thought into the event past their wardrobe. BET turned this premise on its head, putting the show ahead of the awards. The network packed what could have been a tiring running time so chock full of performances that the actual awards seemed like afterthoughts. A gaunt Brandy barely had time to clumsily plug her new album before she was swept offstage to make room for Outkast—shut up and play!

So forget the awards. Denzel won something, Usher won a few. Perhaps the most notable winner was Ludacris, picking up a trophy for his contribution to this year's Best Song, "Yeah". He seemed genuinely humbled when he confessed that, after four albums, this was the first award he had ever received (his nemesis Bill O'Reilly can still polish his imaginary Peabodys). Mel Gibson was awarded best director, but his pre-recorded acceptance further emphasized the fact that this was a family affair. The usual celebrities with projects to promote paraded along the stage, but their introductions were brief and to the point, as were the acceptance speeches. Even host Monique's "I'm fat" shtick failed to wear out its welcome—the comic's plus-sized recreation of "Crazy In Love" was a welcome target. And, perhaps best of all, everyone—audience, viewers, and participants—wanted to see who was on next.

No campy antics. No desperate attempts at controversy. No bullshit. With the best in the business on deck and an enthusiastic crowd (have you seen Grammy audiences sing along to anything?), no act could afford to half-ass it. Not that everything was stellar. Janet Jackson strutted on a faux-post-apocalyptic setting that looked leftover from Rhythm Nation. Hampered by a palpable lack of talent, an out-of-place Elephant Man, and songs that sound like the entire track was run through a vocoder, Janet couldn't make her show seem like more than a miscalculation. G-Unit's lack of energy on record permeated their live performance, and props like a road sign emblazoned with "Cashville: 3 Miles" seemed like they were rushed into existence in the study hall period before. But no matter. These were tasteless side dishes, quickly forgotten in the feast of excellent showmanship. The relative newcomers had plenty to offer. Kanye personified his studio craft with a full gospel choir. Usher busted moves on an 80-degree angle. Alicia Keys started out unsteady, but rose to the occasion in perfect harmony to the dramatic build of "If I Ain't Got You." In perhaps the most "MTV" of performances, Jay-Z and his All-Star Band (Dave Navarro, Slash, Kid Rock, ?uestlove, Rick Rubin on the decks, and Sheila fuckin' E) slammed through "PSA" before hitting some speed bumps on "99 Problems". Kid Rock was too whiskeyed up for his role of the police officer in the track—brilliant casting—but Hov resuscitated the song effortlessly, bringing Kid back into play. Give this man a Vegas show.

However, the real soul of the awards was the classic acts. BET's awards differ from its brethren at MTV. MTV is consciously youth-oriented, and, at best, older acts elicit merely a hint of nostalgia. BET has no such preconceptions. Sure, they show a lot of rap videos for the kids, but make no mistake. This is Black Entertainment, and that means the Isley Brothers are going to tear it up, Social Security checks notwithstanding. After being introduced as "the connective thread of modern music", the Isleys made their case by nailing hits from five decades. Ron Isley can stroke a crowd into a frenzy with a coy wink, and bringing brother Randolph on stage for the first time in 20 years gave the performance extra emotional weight. The middle-agers in the audience put the kids to bed and strutted their stuff in the aisles, singing, dancing, crying. The Isley Brothers are unquestionably one of the most important musical groups in modern history, but they'll never get their props on any other network. No other network could do them justice.

The highlight of the performances united young and old with a hip-hop history lesson/homage with your host Mekhi Fifer. Usually I balk at such self-congratulatory antics, but BET put their money where their mouth was. No video taped retrospectives, no covers by "appreciative" popular artists. BET told it like it was, bringing out the Sugar Hill Gang themselves to perform "Rapper's Delight." I didn't even know these guys were alive, but they strutted like they'd been performing nightly for the past 25 years. Melle Mel was out of shape, but made up for it in unconcealed enthusiasm. MC Lyte had the unfortunate job of preceding The Ruler: Slick Rick's grin was infectious, his flows still silky and that voice! After "Children's Story," he brought out Doug E. Fresh for "Lodi Dodi," a song that at least 80% of the audience knew by heart. At this point, I was out of my seat with tears in my eyes. And I knew what was coming. It had to come. BET would come through. And Public Enemy took the stage. Chuck D is rusty, and Flava Flav looked like an incarcerated alien, but Fight the Power! And no, they didn't censor "motherfuck him and John Wayne." All the previous performers entered the stage, fists pumping. Cut to Kanye, the thoughtful soul of current black music. Fist in the air, tears in his eyes. This isn't for show. This is coming from the heart. I'm getting a little choked up just recollecting it.

BET proved beyond a reasonable doubt that it does more than push Nelly albums. This was a celebration of black culture, of black values. There was quite a bit of Jesus and a whole lot of exhortations to vote. Danny Glover pushed AIDS awareness. A TV network with a social conscience is a rare thing, but BET has always been run with a sense of responsibility. Media outlets for African Americans are few and far between, but the number one awards show among black audiences needs to provide more than snooty commentary about evening gowns. The only drawback? We’ll have to wait until next year to see what they cook up next.

By: Gavin Mueller

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