150,000+ celebrate black music and more at BET Experience

By the time the BET Awards went live from the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live on Sunday night, more than 150,000 fans had already gotten a taste of the event through the network's four-day BET Experience.

Launched in 2012 to expand the audience for the network's highly rated awards show and offer other programming for R&B and hip-hop fans, the BET Experience is an ambitious celebration of black music.

Consider that on Saturday night, for the first time in two decades, most of the surviving members of the groundbreaking N.W.A reunited onstage to perform some of the records that helped define gangsta rap and put the West Coast on the hip-hop map.

Concerts, late-night shows, seminars, celebrity panels, fashion shows and a sprawling expo attracted 152,500 attendees to ticketed and free events, a 36% increase over last year, according to festival organizers. BET and Anschutz Entertainment Group have renewed their deal to continue the festival through 2018.

Expanded to four days this year, things kicked off Thursday with a sold-out stand-up gig at Staples Center by comedian and actor Kevin Hart.

Hart proved why he's one of comedy's biggest stars with a thrilling, rock star-worthy spectacle (a strict no-cellphone policy enforced by a beefed-up security presence kept the audience even more engaged).

Following Hart, Doug E. Fresh and Bell Biv Devoe turned Club Nokia into an old-school party, and the dancing continued into early Friday.

Nicki Minaj's Friday night show was surprisingly disappointing. Technical difficulties pushed her start time back by nearly 40 minutes, and Minaj never appeared to rebound. Although Minaj is capable of moving between myriad personas and sonic backdrops on record and in her provocative videos, by the time she wound down the first quarter of her 18-song set, she seemed completely uninterested in performing.

"Usually, after this song, I go down in an elevator, but BET couldn't afford [it]," she quipped, her irritation palpable.

Before Minaj took the stage, Tinashe warmed up the crowd with a sultry set that pulled from her debut, "Aquarius," and Ne-Yo reminded the crowd why he's one of R&B's great talents.

Avant-soul crooner Miguel closed out Friday with a late-night gig over at Club Nokia, but those who sat through Minaj likely missed his set.

The Los Angeles Convention Center again hosted the festival's free fan expo, which provided a broad range of attractions. Saturday afternoon, the expo was packed with attendees hoping to rub shoulders with celebrities — a common sight was singers, actors and reality stars stopping to take pictures with admirers — or take in the numerous sights and sounds.

While hundreds flocked to free concerts, a sneaker convention, fashion shows and a star-studded celebrity basketball game (Chris Brown, Meek Mill, Omarion and Snoop Dogg all played), others attended Saturday's slate of Genius Talks, the festival's curated discussions with celebrities and luminaries.

Among Saturday's conversations were one-on-one talks with Kobe Bryant and Floyd Mayweather, and panels that tackled the Black Lives Matter movement and being young in Hollywood.

Janelle Monáe presented a showcase for her Wonderland collective. West Coast talents like Vince Staples, Cypress Hill and Too Short anchored the LA to the Bay showcase. The Flava Zone showcase put a spotlight on rising talent, including pop-R&B singer Jasmine V, singer-songwriter Elijah Blake, funky powerhouse Andra Day, rapper-singer Luke Christopher and R&B singer Treasure Davis, and the BETX New Fire showcase focused on emerging rappers, including Timbaland protégé Tink, Detroit emcee Dej Loaf and Fetty Wap, who has one of the biggest rap records of the year.

The weekend's highlights came on its final night of concerts.

Top Dawg Entertainment rappers Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q opened Saturday night's Staples Center show, followed by crowd-pleasing sets from Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. Then Ice Cube took the stage for a set that included the highly anticipated reunion.

The partly reunited N.W.A — as expected, Dr. Dre did not perform — opened with 1999's "Chin Check," the first single the group recorded after the death of group founder Eazy-E in 1995 and the first collaboration with Ice Cube after he famously left the act in 1989.

"These three men ain't performed together onstage in 26 years," Ice Cube gleefully shouted before he went back to trading verses with MC Ren as DJ Yella spun at the turntables.

The crowd's excitement ignited when the opening bars of "Straight Outta Compton" rang out, with many shouting the lyrics right back to the group. They stopped to pay tribute to Eazy, with Yella spinning a number of his solo records as pictures of both Eazy and the group were shown on a screen.

"It's only right to give respect to the Godfather," Ice Cube announced. "Without his vision, you wouldn't see a lot of what you see today."

N.W.A's reunion concluded with the group's most incendiary and infamous tune, "… Tha Police." Arriving in a police car — yes, a cop car was wheeled onstage — Ice Cube jumped out (from the front seat, of course) and launched into the controversial song as old footage of police brutality incidents flashed on the video screen alongside recent cases and scenes of protest.

BET's slate of headliners closed with the Roots and Erykah Badu paying tribute to the late influential producer and rapper J Dilla.

Badu, who previously played the 2013 BET Experience, joined the band and served as somewhat of a co-captain. She moved through her own cuts, sang background vocals on others', and helped connect the night's many guests.

Slum Village, Bilal, Busta Rhymes and the Pharcyde were among the acts that moved through mini-sets, backed by the Roots.

But the weekend's biggest surprise was Lauryn Hill.

Arriving with a trio of backing vocalists, the hip-hop-soul singer stunned the crowd with a tight, powerful set that quickly dispelled memories of hours-late waits and unfocused, erratic shows.

Hill tore through a swinging version of "Lost Ones," and a guitar-driven version of her wrenching "Ex Factor" transformed the tune from a slow-burning torch song to an uplifting foot stomper. She didn't, however, veer far outside the lines of her classic "Doo Wop (That Thing)," much to the thrill of the crowd.

So much action, and the awards show was still hours away.

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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