Coco Jones, Janelle Monae, Muni Long, BJ the Chicago Kid Perform at Soul Train Awards 2023 Hosted by Keke Palmer

Coco Jones, Janelle Monae, Muni Long, BJ the Chicago Kid Perform at Soul Train Awards 2023 Hosted by Keke Palmer

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In kicking off BET’s “house party of the year” — aka Soul Train Awards 2023 — host Keke Palmer ticked off three rules for the annual affair premiering Nov. 26, whose top winners were SZA, Usher and Victoria Monét.

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“Welcome to Keke’s,” said a grinning Palmer to the mix of nominees, performers, presenters and invited guests ensconced on sofas in the opulent backyard of a Beverly Hills mansion. “Rule No. 1: Act like you all got sense. No. 2: Treat my furniture like it’s your own. And No. 3: When you’re at a Keke party, get up when the spirit moves you!” And those gathered did just that despite the uninvited, blustery presence of Los Angeles’ signature Santa Ana winds. In fact, at one point during the pre-taped show, Palmer humorously noted, “I feel like my wig is falling off.”

One special note: In tandem with the Soul Train Awards saluting the end of the writer’s strike, it was announced that for the first time in Soul Train history, the 2023 writing team was comprised of all females of color.   

Featuring a cross section of established and emerging R&B/soul artists, the two-hour telecast’s performance highlights included:

Spirit of Life Award honoree Janelle Monae. Bedecked in a colorful flowered cape, matching boots and head crown and backed by an all-female horn section, Monae immediately revved up the proceedings, energetically sashaying her way through “Float” and “Champagne Shit.” Both tracks are from her latest album The Age of Pleasure, Grammy-nominated in both the album of the year and best progressive R&B album categories. 

Muni Long, who joined forces with fellow Grammy winners Jermaine Dupri (who introed the performance) and Bryan-Michael Cox (providing piano accompaniment) on “Made for Me” —which the trio also co-wrote with Jordan XL. Dressed in sparkling silver trousers accented by a white blazer that was adorned by a long sheer train in the back, Long delivered a nuanced performance of her latest single. Boosting the ballad’s emotional quotient: the take-me-to-church, soul-searing vocals of Long’s six backing vocalists.

This year’s Soul Cypher, which featured R&B artists Nicci Gilbert (lead vocalist of girl group Brownstone), Arin Ray, Eric Bellinger and Marsha Ambrosius (one-half of the duo Floetry). Accompanied by Cox — who also doubled as the show’s DJ — the quartet freestyled over Usher’s 2001 Hot 100 No. 1 “U Got It Bad,” co-written by Dupri and Cox. Noted Ambrosius during her mic turn, “The last time I was here, I won song of the year.” Sealing the deal: the group’s pristine harmonizing on the song’s hook as the cypher came to an end.

A double showing by Coco Jones, who also won best new artist. Jones first delivered a mesmerizing performance of her London on da Track-produced single “Double Back,” which samples the SWV hit “Rain.’” Then that revered group’s members Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, Tamara “Taj” George and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons took center stage and showed off their still potent vocalizing on “Rain,” with Jones joining the trio to close out the performance. Later in the show, Jones teamed up with BJ the Chicago Kid on their mid-tempo single “Spend the Night” — which host Palmer rightfully described as “the melodic pairing we didn’t know we needed.”

Speaking of Palmer, the actress also turned in an riveting performance by way her latest single,  “Ungorgeous.” Among the song’s lyrics is the line, “I’m tired of proving myself to you.” After sustaining a long note just before the ballad’s cold stop, Palmer the singer didn’t have anything to prove given the audience’s enthusiastic response.

The evening’s closing highlight was the presentation of the Legend Award to T-Pain. Rapper, activist and longtime friend David Banner spoke about the “rappa ternt sanga” whose new sound in the mid-2000s “had the whole world sprung. When people copied him, he stood. When people criticized him, he stood. He did not fold. That’s a legend in the making.”

Thanking Banner and his beautiful, “strong wife for dealing with his negatives and flaws” as T-Pain and his real name Faheem Rashad Najm — “a feat I haven’t figured out my damn self” — the artist reflected on turning 39 this year. “Receiving a legend award at 39 may be weird or a little early,” he acknowledged. “I feel like I’ve got two or three more songs I could probably do [laughter]. This is amazing. But to the new artists out there, I don’t want you to chase this. I don’t want you to base your life on how many of these people in this crowd can tell you that you can have this. I want you to know that you already got this. You already have this in your mind. on or care what other people say. Be who you are unapologetically. Be who you ever want to be.” 

Then T-Pain shifted the audience into full-fledged party mode with a rollicking, get-up-on-your-feet medley of his many hits. Among those he reeled off were “Got Money,” “Good Life,” “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” “Bartender,” “Low,” “Blame It,” “Buy U a Drank” and “All I Do Is Win.”

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