If Sunday’s BET Awards served as “the black World Cup” -- as the evening’s host, Chris Rock, put it in his introductory monologue -- then Nicki Minaj was the Netherlands, waiting until the very end of the nearly four-hour show to score.
You could see her setting up her game-winning goal earlier, when Iggy Azalea came onstage to perform her hit “Fancy” and a reaction shot of Minaj in the audience showed the rapper primping exaggeratedly. Was she enjoying Azalea’s performance? Making fun of it? It wasn’t clear.
Until it was. Accepting the award for best female hip-hop artist, the final prize handed out Sunday, Minaj used her time at the podium to take a masterful dig at Azalea, whose ascent this year evidently feels like a threat to the more established artist.
“What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it,” she said, an only slightly veiled reference to rumors that Azalea doesn’t write her own material. Then, just in case we didn’t get it, she primped some more, mimicking Azalea’s signature gestures with a precision that Minaj’s former acting teachers might have admired.
“No shade,” she added, insisting she meant no disrespect. Well, OK.
Minaj’s jab provided a refreshingly vicious jolt in an event otherwise filled with earnestness. There was Pharrell Williams’ opening performance of his song “Come Get It Bae,” for which he seemed beyond stoked to bring out Missy Elliott, the lovable hip-hop veteran whom Williams described as “the empress.”
There was John Legend doing some typically cordial mansplaining in “You & I (Nobody in the World)” -- “You don’t know that you’re beautiful,” he sang -- before joining Jhené Aiko for a typically dreary rendition of “The Worst.”
And there was Robin Thicke, introducing his new ballad “Forever Love” by publicly apologizing -- for what seemed like the thousandth time -- to his estranged wife, Paula Patton.
No shade, but so much of this year’s BET Awards felt like Grammy Awards-style glad-handing, not the least of which was a too-mild tribute to Lionel Richie that misunderstood his goofy appeal with deferential reenactments of “Hello” and “Brick House” by Legend and Ledisi. (The gospel singer Yolanda Adams improved the sequence with a trip deep into the Commodores’ “Jesus Is Love.”)
Quick-hit performances by a trio of ’90s-era R&B groups -- Troop, Silk and Color Me Badd -- had more energy but still felt distressingly polite, as though these guys were determined not to blow their one moment back in the spotlight.
Yet despite the surplus of thank-yous, real awards-show moments aren’t built from gratitude; more often than not, the memorable ones are made of swagger.
August Alsina, Trey Songz and Chris Brown -- current R&B stars too young to have had much use for Troop, Silk or Color Me Badd -- seemed to get that in their bruising three-way collaboration. Lil Wayne sounded terrible in the rap-rock “Krazy” but looked great as he stomped around the stage dressed like a Seattle fisherman.
And Jennifer Hudson, of all people, brought a surprising fierceness to “Walk It Out,” which recalled the unforgiving disco thump of Grace Jones. (Keyshia Cole, too, was hilariously unimpressed as she introduced a performance by a member of BET’s Music Matters program.)
It wasn’t about being mean, although that certainly helped Minaj stand out. But pop stars get all year to present themselves as heroes. What was exciting about Sunday’s highlights was getting a glimpse of the villains within.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times