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9 can't-miss Essence Festival performers

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Essence Festival, a blend of today’s hottest artists and speakers curated by Essence editors, descends on New Orleans this weekend. But with more than 50 performers, 80 lecturers, and tons of other attractions, the stacked lineup can get daunting for even the most ambitious festivalgoers. Top-notch speakers like New York Times columnist Charles Blow and author Deepak Chopra will provide serious food for thought, but for many the main draw of Essence Fest remains the music. To help, these are EW’s nine can’t-miss artists for this year’s festival.

Kevin Hart (Thursday, 8:45 p.m., main stage)

The first of Essence’s four headliners isn’t a musician. From a well-received SNL hosting job to a commercially successful blockbuster to earning the Comedic Genius Award at the MTV Movie Awards, Kevin Hart has had a massive year—and he’s keeping it going with his What Now? standup tour, which has already sold out multiple dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Popular comedians can verge on rockstar status, and that’s the rarefied air Hart currently occupies.

Slick Rick (Friday, 7:05 p.m., Art of Hip-Hop superlounge)

Essence’s main stage features some artists currently gripping the American zeitgeist, but fans who dig deeper at the fest will get rewarded. Case and point: the Art of Hip-Hop superlounge, which hosts some of the genre’s excellent legacy acts, including Kool Moe Dee, Mase, and Mystikal. As a late ‘80s Def Jam signee, Slick Rick helped shape rap music with a knack for storytelling that still ranks with the best of hip-hop, even after the intervening three decades.

Wale (Saturday, 7:20 p.m., Now Playing superlounge)

The Saturday lineup at Essence Fest this year is the stuff of legends. Kick off the fireworks with Wale’s set at the Now Playing superlounge, a venue for up-and-comers where the rapper clearly reigns supreme. Earlier this year he dropped The Album About Nothing, a continuation of his Seinfeld-themed mixtapes and an excellent album to boot. Assuming he can pull himself away from watching the show on Hulu, Wale should deliver.

Erykah Badu (Saturday, 8:35 p.m., main stage)

Since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two, the First Lady of Neo-Soul—and Essence‘s August cover star—has kept a relatively low musical profile, appearing only as a featured guest on songs by the likes of Flying Lotus, Janelle Monaé, and most recently Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment. But if her impassioned performance at this year’s Roots Picnic is any indication, Erykah Badu still has the magic that catapulted her into the American consciousness two decades ago.

Bilal (Saturday, 9:10 p.m., Soul of R&B superlounge)

You may not know the name, but you know the voice. The Philly-raised singer has provided classic hooks for a who’s who of hip-hop that includes Lupe Fiasco, The Roots, J Dilla, Jay Z, and Ghostface Killah. Earlier this year, Bilal’s velvety vocals elevated Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly cuts “Institutionalized” and “These Walls” from excellent to transcendent, which would be more remarkable if Bilal didn’t do that on nearly every song on which he appears. Bonus: The singer’s most frequent collaborator Common performs 90 minutes earlier in the evening, so a guest appearance during this set isn’t out of the question.

Missy Elliot (Saturday, 9:55 p.m., main stage)

Katy Perry may have been this year’s Super Bowl halftime show headliner, but all anybody remembers is Missy Elliott. Well, her and Left Shark. The rapper absolutely obliterated her appearance there, indicative of her lightning-in-a-bottle live act. The catch? Her only currently scheduled performance is at Essence on Saturday night. Don’t miss it.

Usher (Saturday, 11:15 p.m., main stage)

Even at a festival with some of the best R&B crooners around, Usher easily stands above the competition. His 23-year career has spawned nine No. 1 singles and an assortment of other well-known tracks and guest spots, creating a level of ubiquity that stands to make Usher’s Essence set the weekend’s best dance party. It’ll be a steamy show, and not just because of the N’awlins summer heat.

SZA (Sunday, 8 p.m., Hot Right Now superlounge)

The alt-R&B singer’s stock has quickly risen, due to a unique style that stems from influences she lists as including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Björk, and Wu-Tang Clan. A Top Dawg Entertainment signee—the same label that hosts Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul—SZA’s string of acclaimed EPs have established high expectations for her forthcoming studio debut. One day she could be headlining festivals like Essence, so catch her with a small crowd at the event’s Hot Right Now superlounge while you still can.

Kendrick Lamar (Sunday, 10:55 p.m., main stage)

Is there any event in 2015 where Kendrick Lamar isn’t the must-see act? He’s not only hip-hop’s current MVP—he could very well be music’s current MVP, period. With its blend of rhyming acumen, musical savvy, and political importance, Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly is an early lock for year-end lists. Plus, reports from headlining slots at Sasquatch and Bonnaroo suggest the L.A. MC has elevated his live performance to match his studio excellence.

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