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BET Awards: All the performances graded (and Janet Jackson's speech)

June 28, 2009 |  6:02 pm

Grading the performances as they happen (sort-of), typos and all:

New Edition: Jackson 5 medley,  "ABC," "The Love You Save."
This one is going to be a challenge to instantly grade, as a lot of these performances were certainly thrown together at the last minute, and are more about celebrating our favorite Michael Jackson songs than typical award-show self-promotion. Ideally, that will give us some of the better award-show live performances in memory, where emotion and soul will take precedence over all else. That was certainly the case with this surprise New Edition appearance, where they adorably strutted in red and tan vintage '70s outfits, and were a fitting cover band. It was cute, and set a celebratory tone. Sadly, it did not set the stage for an expansive Jackson tribute show. B

Keri Hilson: "Knock You Down." Kind of a hot mess, and certainly an entertaining one. Hilson was sporting a "Bad"-era Michael look, and showed of some vintage Michael skids and slides, but spent the choruses falling backward into the audience. Her ragtag backing crew looked like it belonged on "The Outsiders" rather than an awards show, but Hilson kept it lively -- this was about forcefulness rather than finesse. B

Ne-Yo: "Lady in My Life." A crowd-pleaser, but anything Ne-Yo did was going to win over the audience, as his career has been a love letter to Michael. He handled the ballad fine, but Ne-Yo has the power to bring the house down. Few other young R&B stars could tackle any of Michael's dance numbers with aplomb, but Ne-Yo parked himself on a stool, and went for a tearjerker rather a show stopper. B-

Jamie Foxx & T-Pain & Travis Barker: "Blame It." An already cluttered song, marked by its artless Auto-Tune vocals, became even more cluttered when Blink-182's Travis Barker arrived to hammer away in the song's final few moments. Foxx was better when he referenced "Beat It" in the show's opener. D

Soulja Boy Tell'em: "Turn My Swag On." Hmmm, so much for the BET Awards being completely retooled for a Jackson tribute. Here we get Soulja Boy singing his latest ring tone. "Yeah, I'm getting money," he bounced and hollered, seemingly mocking us all for making him a star. D

Beyoncé: “Ave Maria” and  “Angel.”  Looking classy in a thin white dress. Wait. No. A few seconds in we see Beyoncé is wearing basically a slip with a see-through white robe, which a wind machine is doing its best to strip her of. It’s a pretty enough song, if this were a Christmas tree lighting. It switches midway to Sarah McLachlan's "Angel,” but the real entertainment at that point was watching a crew of dancing sprites throw a makeshift dress on Beyoncé. B-

Mary Mary: “God in Me.” Foxx introduces Mary Mary as “the new Queens of Gospel,” but they sound an awful lot like standard run-of-the-mill queens of R&B. With a skittering electronic beat, it’s mid-tempo R&B with a smattering of hip-hop. A midpoint appearance from Queen Latifah picks things up, but not by much. C

Ne-Yo with Jamie Foxx and Fabulous: “She Got Her Own.” OK, so the Associated Press noted that these awards may run 30 minutes longer with added Michael Jackson tributes, but how about they just trim the repeat performances from Ne-Yo and Foxx, especially the mid-tempo numbers? Nice to pull out a live version of a remix, but things are definitely slowing down. D+

BET flashback moment: Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Guy’s “I Like” and Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison.” Losing the room. What’s the excuse for this medley? Do all these artists have greatest hits albums coming out? A couple minutes of some old hits, but this is offensive awards-show padding at this point. D

Ciara: “Heal the World.” Sporting a Michael-inspired jacket, complete with tassels, Ciara was sublimely sweet in her take on the Michael classic. Clean, simple, restrained and a bit too short even. B

Keyshia Cole and  Monica: “Trust.” A small stairway materialized on the BET stage to add a bit of choreography for the R&B ballad. Monica looked tough in black, almost as if she were ready to jump on a motorcycle. Cole was all hot pink, and the pair tossed verses back and forth, selling a relationship anthem for those skeptical of relationships. B

Jay-Z: “D.O.A.” A take-down of Auto-Tone, this song is pure nonsense -- a manufactured attack on a recording device that manipulates vocals. But it’s working, as Jay-Z is getting the headlines, and even when he has nothing to say he’s a more demanding performer than most. Additionally, the dripping sax and alarming guitar notes at least make Jay-Z’s Auto-Tune attack feel important. B+

Tevin Campbell, Trey Songz, Tyrese and Johnny Gill: A tribute to the O’Jays with “Forever Mine,” “Back Stabbers,” “Stairway to Heaven.” Introduced by “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, who credited the O’Jays as “the soundtrack of the black experience,” there was nothing wrong with this homage. Seeing Campbell surprised the crowd, and he sounded strong. But the real treat was Cornelius, who chatted off-prompter for five minutes introducing the O’Jays, and telling stories about having to wake them up at their hotel room to get them on “Soul Train.” B

The O’Jays: “Let Me Make Love To You,” “For the Love of Money” and “Used Ta Be My Girl.”  Whew — this is a lengthy segment for the O’Jays. In fact, the O’Jays’ music has probably now gotten as much screen time as all of the various Michael nods. But the positive grade for the above medley was given a bit too soon, as that was pure vanilla compared to the lengthy three-song run-down, in which the O’Jays were all suave and class, and even brought a bit of grit. A

Maxwell: “Pretty Wings.” Eloquently introduced by Foxx, who said that the first time he heard Maxwell he almost had himself in a “Prop 8 situation,” the silky R&B veteran performed his new single, the elegant, late-night, slow groove of “Pretty Wings.” Feathers draped the crowd, and a sax helped the song reach its swoon. Now at almost 3½ hours long, the BET Awards are feeling awfully bloated, but Maxwell surely calmed the nerves of anyone who was getting impatient. A-

Drake, Lil Wayne and  Cash Money: “Best I Ever Had” and "Every Girl." Along with Kid Cudi, Drake is the hottest rapper who doesn’t have an album out yet, and he got a prime slot on the BET Awards, at least for anyone who was sticking around. He looked a little green, hurrying through his “Best I Ever Had,” and never leaving his stool (Update: Drake was confined to his stool because he reportedly tore his ACL), at least not until he introduced Lil Wayne for “Every Girl.” Much of the latter, however, wasn’t audible to the home viewing audiences, with BET censors protecting the world from Lil Wayne’s  explicit anti-commitment rap. C+

Before the final performance, Janet Jackson gave a brief speech: “My entire family wanted to be here tonight, but it was just too painful, and they elected me to speak to all of you … To you, Michael is an icon. To us, Michael is family, and he will forever live in all of our hearts. On behalf of my family and myself, thank you for all of your love, and thank you for all of your support. We miss him so much. Thank you so much.”

Final performance: Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx singing “I’ll Be There.” As noted earlier, Ne-Yo is the one best equipped to sing a Jackson tribute, and he handles himself well here – a graceful close to an otherwise lengthy, tired and overstuffed award telecast. We'll give this one an A, and wish that the telecast would have done some grander tributes to the fallen King of Pop.

-- Todd Martens

Photo: WireImage