How the BET Awards made other shows look irrelevant

More often than not, awards shows work to keep the outside world outside, their objective to create a kind of safe space for the self-absorption that keeps Hollywood running.

Not the BET Awards.

Broadcast live Sunday night from the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the cable network's 15th-anniversary blowout felt proudly connected to reality from the get-go, beginning with a fierce performance by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who stood atop a bombed-out police car to deliver his song "Alright" as tattered American flags waved around him.

Up next were the show's hosts, Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who mentioned Rachel Dolezal in a comedic bit about the experience of African Americans in show business. And then came the evening's first presenter, Laverne Cox, the pioneering transgender actress who stars on "Orange Is the New Black."

Hear that sound? It's the iHeartRadio Music Awards slipping (further) into blinkered irrelevance.

BET's opening salvo ricocheted through much of the rest of the nearly four-hour show, in which major awards went to Lamar (for male hip-hop artist), Nicki Minaj (female hip-hop artist) and Terrence Howard (best actor).

The Weeknd flexed a newfound gravitas in "Earned It," performed here as a duet with Alicia Keys. Anthony Hamilton and Gary Clark Jr. were tasteful but deep-feeling in a tribute to Percy Sledge, Ben E. King and B.B. King.

And Smokey Robinson, accepting a lifetime achievement award, practically took the crowd to church with a stirring, sermon-like speech in which he warned his fellow celebrities of the dangers in becoming "self-absorbed and haughty."

Perhaps they were paying attention too: Other winners and performers mentioned the recent killings in Charleston, S.C., and last week's Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

Not everyone at BET looked beyond more insular matters, of course.

Performing his hit kiss-off with an unprintable title, Big Sean exuded his usual petulance, the big-timer lording his success over the woman who let him go.

Chris Brown and Tyga were equally bratty (if significantly less convincing) doing their duet "Ayo." And R&B singer Keyshia Cole got in a delightfully shameless plug for her coming album while onstage ostensibly to highlight the work of up-and-comers.

There was also a long sequence marking the 20th anniversary of Bad Boy Records, the once-powerful hip-hop label founded by Sean "Diddy" Combs, who on Sunday brought together a handful of acts — including Mase, Lil' Kim, 112 and Faith Evans — for an uncut dose of late-'90s nostalgia.

But even that reunion had an electricity often lacking in similar award shows like the Grammys, especially when Pharrell Williams — fresh from a gig Saturday at England's Glastonbury Festival — turned up to join Diddy for a surprisingly hard-edged new song.

Known for his effervescent hit "Happy," Williams at BET was inspired to touch down on solid ground.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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