Essence Festival organizers cut off hip-hop artist Missy Elliott after an hour in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Saturday night, as her set ran long and threatened to delay the next act, superstar Usher.
It seemed an apt ending for a show that started on a dim stage and never seemed to gain momentum, as the singer interrupted herself, wandered into the audience and started songs over.
Still, the Dome was filled with excited fans, ready to dance and willing to give the charismatic singer all their love.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Elliott was on the cutting edge of hip-hop, pop, dance and video. She seemed to disappear around 2005.
When Katy Perry brought Elliott on stage during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, she stole the show, and the world collectively wondered where she’d been.
Afterwards, she revealed that she’d spent many of the intervening years dealing with Graves disease, which attacks the thyroid and makes working difficult.
Saturday night, Elliott played her first concert since 2008, but it likely didn’t go as planned.
Organizers cut the sound and lights when she ran over her 60-minute set, leaving the singer silent and in the dark.
Perhaps it was the ending promised by the set’s beginning: dancers moving in low light illuminated by LEDs in their shoes, creating an air of mystery.
When Elliott’s voice entered the mix, it was low, as if part of a backing track, but then she appeared with no fanfare in a Missy leather baseball cap, biker leathers, big hoop earrings and rump-length hair extensions. “My good weave,” she called them.
She revisited her 1997 debut album “Supa Dupa Fly,” and the audience roared with excitement when she started “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Sock It 2 Me.”
But she didn’t take either to a satisfying length, quickly cutting one off to start another. It wasn’t until a costume change and a full-length version of “Get Ur Freak On” that the Essence audience broke loose to dance.
Throughout the show, Elliott and her hype man told the crowd, “I can’t hear you!” — a standard hip-hop exhortation, but it was partly true. The swift, unceremonious way Elliott got through songs left fans with little musical to hang on to.
She didn’t coast or mail in the show, but she didn’t treat her songs like precious jewels — the way songs are often played in concert, and the way fans feel about their favorites.
The crowd loved Elliott anyway. When she left the stage to sing in the audience, fans ran to wherever she was in quest of pictures.
It was hard to be mad at Elliott, whose broad smile throughout the show was engaging, as was her exuberant belief in herself.
Still, when she felt like her dancers weren’t getting enough attention, she interrupted the show and, after a few confused moments, revisited the ending of the song she had just finished — “Pass That Dutch” — to draw attention to their efforts.
Elliott’s charisma is such that the audience didn’t get more than casually restless when she turned the stage over to her protege, Sharaya-J, or when she left the stage a second time, looking for a way to wake up the upper reaches of the Dome.
When she found it hard to leave the floor, she returned to the stage and asked her DJ to play excerpts of songs that she wrote and/or produced including Keyshia Cole’s “Let it Go” and Gina Thompson’s “The Things That You Do.”
She brought out Essence superlounge singer Jazmine Sullivan, and while they were singing the stage unexpectedly went dead except for the between-set ads from sponsors.
Throughout, it felt like Elliott envisioned a much-deserved celebration of Missy-ness, and the crowd seemed to want to that too. But the swift, partial treatments of her songs left the audience looking for a way into the show, and she frittered away any momentum by interrupting the set to give the people everything but tracks they loved and waited for.
Earlier in the evening, Grammy-winning rapper Common was far more reliable.
The upstanding, high-minded and earnest rapper radiates “good husband.” Dressed stylishly in suede Nikes, black jeans and a designer white baseball jacket, Common still looked more like a cool high school history teacher than a star.
It’s no surprise that he was profoundly respectful of women, but even when he celebrated hip-hop on the old school shout-out “I Used to Love Her,” he made sure the audience knew it was good for them, intoning seriously, “Hip-hop is soul.”
Common freestyled an impressive verse to a woman he brought out of the audience as an introduction to “Come Close,” his 2002 duet with Mary J. Blige.
But none of that could obscure the basic pleasure of good, well-performed songs.
Songs from his 2005 Kanye West-produced “Be” album dominated the set and presented his social realist rhymes shaded by the emotional complexity of late ‘60s and early ’70s soul.
Common’s seriousness didn’t stop his DJ, DJ Dummy, from showing off his impressive turntable skills on Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s classic “It Takes Two.”
When Common concluded with “Glory,” the Grammy and Oscar-winning theme from the movie “Selma,” he followed the line “That’s why we walked through Ferguson with our hands up” with the new “That’s why we walked through Baltimore with our hands up,” underscoring the renewed sense of struggle for Civil Rights.
Common delivered the line and song with such clarity of purpose that the moment’s power was palpable.
Missy Elliott could have used some of that clarity.