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BET Experience has some great acts but struggles to find its purpose in a crowded rap and R&B scene

BET Experience has some great acts but struggles to find its purpose in a crowded rap and R&B scene
SZA, clockwise from upper left, headlines this year's BET Experience alongside Chris Brown; Jhené Aiko onstage during BETX in 2017. She played this year's inaugural Smokin' Grooves in Long Beach; Anderson .Paak during his set at Smokin' Grooves. (Los Angeles Times)

“Look at all that chocolate out there. I’ve never seen this many black folks in one place,” Anderson Paak said at the Smokin’ Gooves festival last week.

The genre-stretching performer was midway through his set of adventurous R&B when he stopped to survey the sea of mostly black and brown bodies that packed the Queen Mary waterfront in Long Beach for the sold-out, day-long blowout.

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First launched in 1996 as an annual amphitheater package tour focused on hip-hop, Smokin’ Grooves was a preeminent ticket for rap fans while proving the genre’s viability as a commercial force in the concert business at a time when gangsta rap had scared promoters from booking rappers in large venues.

Those days are long gone. Rap is as big, and profitable, as any genre — just tune into any Top 40 radio station, scan any major festival line-up or open any music streaming service and see what the world is listening to — and there’s no longer a dearth of major events for fans of the genre to pick from.

With a bill focused on alternative R&B and hip-hop — Erykah Badu, Miguel, the Roots, Jhené Aiko and H.E.R. were major draws — Smokin’ Grooves offered a highly curated, one-of-a-kind experience.

Smokin’ Grooves provides a reminder of what the BET Experience set out to do when it launched six years ago. BET’s festival this weekend no longer feels as ambitious or as enticing as it once did — and it’s facing questions about its future.

Anchored around L.A. Live, the multi-day event offers packaged arena shows, late-night performances, seminars, celebrity panels and more around BET’s annual awards show telecast. The festival, which drew 165,000 last year, started Thursday and goes through Sunday.

Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and R. Kelly headlined the inaugural BET Experience.
Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and R. Kelly headlined the inaugural BET Experience. (Los Angeles Times)

The BET Experience — now known as the more millennial-friendly sounding BETX — arrived with high hopes.

The network wanted to expand its popular BET Awards and brand a music experience that could give the Essence Music Festival a run for its money — a tall order, considering that festival draws 500,000 music fans to New Orleans each year. BETX also provided an opportunity to tap into the Southern California market that lacked festivals catering to hip-hop and R&B fans after the shuttering of Rock the Bells and Paid Dues.

BET partnered with AEG, along with its promoter Goldenvoice, to produce the event. This is the final year of a contract renewal reached in 2015 and it remains unclear what plans are moving forward, particularly as Goldenvoice continues to mount smaller, specialized R&B/hip-hop festivals like Tyler, the Creator's quirky Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, Smokin’ Grooves and the upcoming Summertime in the LBC.

Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Badu, Miguel and R. Kelly headlined BET Experience’s debut, and other previous lineups boasted Nicki Minaj, Future, Jill Scott, Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, ASAP Rocky and Ice Cube, among others.

Its appeal lies wholly in providing an immersive companion to the BET Awards, one of the few shows of its caliber in which black entertainers take center stage. Although access to the award show comes with a hefty price tag (packages run between $1,095 and $4,500) fans are able to feel a part of the action by attending the concerts — some acts do double duty by performing at both the award show and the festival — or rub shoulders with black entertainers at the expo without breaking the bank, as individual tickets are sold at affordable price points.

But there’s little buzz around this year’s BET Awards. The line-up for the telecast lacks the kind of star power viewers have come to expect. And that lack of excitement extends to the festival.

H.E.R performs during Smokin' Groves on June 16 in Long Beach. The rising R&B singer made her debut at the BET Experience just last year.
H.E.R performs during Smokin' Groves on June 16 in Long Beach. The rising R&B singer made her debut at the BET Experience just last year. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In previous years, room was made for veteran R&B and rap artists paired with the young acts pushing the genre forward.

No other festival would place New Edition and the Jacksons atop its bill, offer Snoop Dogg a standing invitation to return every year, allow the Roots to fete yesteryear hip-hop until early morning or serve as a launch for Beyoncé’s world tour.

This year’s bill pales in comparison to past lineups as well as other festivals focused on R&B and hip-hop. It largely skewers toward younger fans, which is understandable, as organizers are clearly looking to reflect the tastes of an audience streaming hip-hop and R&B; artists from the genres have put out albums that have sat at No. 1 for 15 weeks so far this year and dominate streaming charts (the top 50 songs being played on Apple Music now are hip-hop or some form of R&B).

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The annual rap blowout — historically the biggest night of BETX — this year has tapped Rae Sremmurd, Meek Mill, Ferg, Nipsey Hussle, Playboi Carti, Kamaiyah and WondaGurl, a roster that will easily move an arena crowd but that lacks the firepower of years past.

An evening focused on youthful R&B sees such rising singers as Ella Mai, SZA and Teyana Taylor performing alongside Chris Brown, and Thursday’s opener pair boasts LL Cool J, Nas, Ludacris and Ne-Yo. There are also club shows scheduled featuring Tinashe, Wale and Kevin Gates, but those are promoted solely by Goldenvoice and not officially affiliated with BETX, as in previous years.

There are some great bookings here. Mai is having a major breakout, Kamaiyah is one of the more exciting rap voices to emerge in recent years, Hussle put out one of the finest rap albums of 2018, and new works from Taylor and Nas are part of the string of June releases Kanye West has overseen, and fans will be eager to see those tracks performed. But nothing about this year’s BETX feels cohesive or offers any particular narrative at a time when R&B and hip-hop have permeated so much of the culture. Not surprisingly, none of the shows has sold out.

One of the reasons Essence is such a landmark and why events like Smokin’ Grooves, last year’s disastrous, but gorgeously themed Soulquarius and Rolling Loud, now anchored in multiple cities including San Bernardino, are so alluring to fans is the imaginative bookings.

For instance, for this year’s Essence Fest in July, Queen Latifah has curated a celebration of women in hip-hop, along with celebrations of New Jack Swing and throwback R&B. But the lineup is also thick with young voices such as Kelela, Miguel, Dvsn and Daniel Caesar and superstars like Missy Elliott and Janet Jackson. Soulquarius traced the last quarter century of R&B, and Rolling Loud stacked its bill with chart-topping rap acts and emcees percolating on SoundCloud, where young rappers are disrupting hip-hop tradition with DIY takes on the genre.

As the festival economy has grown dramatically in the last 15 years — according to a 2015 Nielsen Music survey, 32 million people attend at least one music festival in the U.S. each year (nearly half are in the coveted millennial demographic) — promoters have started to think smaller, tailoring their offerings to specific audiences instead of trying to mount big-tent events.

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That explains Smokin' Grooves’ revival as a daylong experience in Long Beach before it potentially returns as a touring festival. And Smokin Grooves’ is but one of two small-scale festivals Goldenvoice is introducing this season.

The same weekend of Essence, Summertime in the LBC will make its debut. Like Smokin’ Grooves, Goldenvoice will stage the festival on the Queen Mary waterfront. (Also like Smokin’ Grooves, it sold out quickly.)

Summertime in the LBC is zeroing in on throwback hip-hop and R&B, with a focus on the architects of West Coast hip-hop. Snoop Dogg will perform his seminal debut “Doggystyle” in its entirety as part of his headlining set, and Ice Cube, the Game, E-40 & Too Short, Warren G, DJ Quik and Suga Free all have prime billing.

Promising as it seemed, BETX has never gotten close to reaching its potential. Now, as newer, more focused, festivals pop up in Southern California, this year’s BETX feels like an afterthought — ironic for an event that touts itself as “too big to miss.”

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