Kicking off their second year in Las Vegas this past Saturday (May 6), the 2023 Lovers and Friends Festival brought A-list musical icons like Mariah Carey, Summer Walker, Christina Aguilera, 50 Cent, and Missy Elliott together. Essentially, it was a clusterfuck of hip-hop and R&B artists from the ‘90s and ‘00s, the festival pushing a synchronized theme of nostalgia that fans also participated in. Walking through the festival grounds, you could see young ladies wearing pink Juicy Couture sets with Air Force 1s or Aaliyah and Tommy Hilfiger recreations, and men dressed as Nelly or Dem Franchize Boyz with oversized white t-shirts and baggy jeans. But it was clear that there was a disconnect between what the festival aimed to deliver and the final product, resulting in an underwhelming event meant to celebrate a prime era of hip-hop and R&B.
The first problem was the chaotic lineup. Cramming all of its performers into one day across four stages was a logistical nightmare, especially when taking into account how far the main stages — the Lovers and Friends stages — were from the Bling and Crunk stages. This, paired with the artists usually hitting the stage later than scheduled only added to the problem, making it much harder for attendees to bounce to different stages to see the artists they wanted to.
When I arrived, I hopped around to get food and take in the large scale of the festival’s set up before heading over to the Friends stage to see Jhené Aiko perform. This was first performance since giving birth a few months ago and the set was solid, with Aiko performing standouts like “Stay Ready (What a Life)” and “Back to the Streets,” which featured an appearance from Saweetie. There was a touching moment with Big Sean, too, where he praised Aiko for her dedication to her craft, saying that she’s been so focused on being a mom that she pulled away from that just to get ready for this festival. That touching sentiment of sacrifice was unfortunately cut short as Aiko’s mic and sound were shut off during her last song, the artist rushed off the stage to get ready for the next performer — Pitbull.
Over on the Crunk Stage, Master P & No Limit Soldiers — really, it was just Master P and Mia X — put on a fun performance as they ran through classics like “Mr. Ice Cream Man” and “Make ‘Em Say Ugh.” Having watched all of Master P’s set, my friends and I headed back over to the Friends Stage to finish watching Chris Brown’s set. Brown’s set was one of the most anticipated of the evening, and not because of the music. After rumors circulated around Vegas of an incident that had allegedly taken place at Brown’s birthday party between himself, Teyana Taylor, and Usher, everyone wanted to see if Brown would respond, especially since Usher would be performing on that same stage right after him. Taking a more professional route, Brown didn’t respond at all, taking the stage to do what he was supposed to do — perform.
In between Brown and Usher’s sets was 50 Cent over at the Lovers Stage. A run through of a decade filled with hits, 50’s performance was a reminder of just how good his catalog is. But it was also a reminder of how messy he tends to be, too. Although Brown and Usher refused to make any comment on the birthday incident during their performances, 50 addressed the elephant at the festival and made jokes about “R&B niggas” punching each other in the face.
Back at the Friends Stage was a delayed start for Usher’s set. But with outfit changes, pristine lighting, revamped versions of his iconic choreography, and a rolodex of classic hit records, the slightly late start was excused, with Usher leaving me amazed at his undeniable showmanship. The late starts continued with the Friends Stage’s final performer of the night, Mariah Carey. Starting 30 minutes late, the legendary singer began with “Vision of Love” before going into the remixed version of “Fantasy” that doubled as a performance of Latto’s “Big Energy.” If Mariah wanted to piss me off, she should have just said that. I’ve never seen so many people stop and look around in confusion, with Mariah’s set an underwhelming collection of slow ballads and an unexpected house remix of “Emotions,” instead of the hits people came to hear. (At least we got to see Boyz II Men and her perform “One Sweet Day” though.)
The real winner of the weekend was Missy Elliott. Recently announced as a part of the 2023 class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, her performance at Lovers and Friends was the rap equivalent of Beyonce’s headlining performance at Coachella, offering the fans the one thing they didn’t get all day from the festival — an actual experience. The attention to detail from her creative direction, organization of her setlist, cohesiveness of her dancers, outfit changes, and set design was nearly flawless. A surprise appearance from Monica and a video montage from acts like Pharrell Williams, Fantasia, Teyana Taylor, and Busta Rhymes, applauding Missy on her greatness and induction, only added to an already incredible set, with Missy reminding attendees why she’s one of hip-hop’s most talented figures.
Lovers and Friends was a failed attempt at relishing in on our love for nostalgia. Some fans might not know any better but we do, and they deserve better than what this festival offered.