As marketers and now festival promoters try to tap into the so-called "millennial nostalgia," this year's Lovers & Friends Festival in Las Vegas couldn't have had better timing. But at the same time, it could have also been timed out a lot better.
For starters, yes, millennial nostalgia is definitely a thing. As those born in the '80s and '90s are now full-grown adults, and the fashion and music and pop culture surges back in popularity, Usher's Lovers & Friends fest launched last year for its inaugural event, dripping in throwback R&B and hip-hop with the likes of Lauryn Hill, TLC, Ciara, Nelly, Ne-Yo and more on the lineup.
This year, the Live Nation-promoted event tried to make some safety changes, learning from last year's chaotic scramble when some attendees thought they heard gunshots. But even with the glow of incredible headliners such as Missy Elliott and Mariah Carey, along with many, many, much-appreciated shaded picnic tables and water-spritzing cooling areas, the reality of scheduling so many performers on one day proved to be a thorn in the festival's side.
With just 12 hours and four stages (two of which were the main "Lovers" and "Friends" stages), fans had to pick and choose their schedule wisely, as the Saturday fest started promptly at noon with Lil Mo, Bobby V, Yung Joc and Da Brat performing early in the day, with the latter showing off a baby bump in a customized Chicago Bulls jersey.
The rapper, who just turned 49 last month and is pregnant with her first child, was beaming as she performed her own songs and also paid homage to Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa, while also throwing slight shade at the newer generation of rappers, telling the crowd, unlike some current women artists, she believes it's important to honor those who paved the way.
In contrast with some other mainstream festivals, where newer, lesser known artists typically play earlier set times, there was already a large crowd filling up the Las Vegas Festival Grounds bright and early, as fans eagerly waited for old school favorites like Omarion, Wayne Wonder, Busta Rhymes, Chingy, Lil Kim and Boyz II Men, with the latter two performing their own sets while also popping up later in the night, with Kim joining Christina Aguilera's set and Boyz II Men showing up for Mariah Carey.
But before we could get to those sets, Jhené Aiko took the Friends Stage, notably performing her first show since having her own baby with Big Sean late last year. "This is my first show since having my beautiful baby boy," the singer exclaimed at the beginning of her set. Of course, it wasn't much of a surprise when Sean himself surprised the crowd and joined her for a duet. The rapper was already scheduled to be in Vegas performing at Drai's Nightclub that night.
After their performance together, Sean paused and showered praise on Jhené, telling fans it was a challenge for her to return to the stage because she's been so busy stepping into motherhood. "She's so hands on," Sean said, noting Aiko has been breastfeeding their son. He then shouted out "all the mamas" out there, which received a massive applause from the crowd.
That moment also highlighted one of the strengths of a festival such as Lovers & Friends, as the bulk of the audience seemed to be in their late 20s to early 40s, a nod to the fact that so many '80s and '90s babies were excited to hear many of their favorite songs growing up. In fact, during Aiko's set, I was standing next to a young family with a baby laying in a carriage. Unlike so many other festivals, with teens and college-aged fans making up a large swath of the crowd, the age difference for Lovers & Friends was noticeable, and it was perhaps one of the more amicable festival crowds we've experienced.
As the afternoon wore on, Miguel was next to take the Lovers Stage, performing a string of fan favorites, then cautiously pausing during a special rendition of "Girl with the Tattoo" when it appeared someone in the crowd might be suffering a medical emergency. He thanked the audience for getting his attention, noting it's important for people to look after each other.
Then came Chris Brown on the Friends Stage, arguably one of the most-anticipated performances of the day, not only because of his lengthy catalog or controversial reputation, but because just hours before, TMZ sparked rumors Brown had gotten into a heated and reportedly physical exchange with Usher and Teyana Taylor the night prior to the festival. For his part, Brown took to Instagram after the festival and said the reports were false and he was simply trying to get his child out of an area being blocked off by security because of overcrowding.
"I intervened to let them know my child was back there," Brown wrote. "So y'all can keep ya narrative."
Regardless of what may or may not have happened, or where one falls on the Chris Brown spectrum, on a day full of hurried performances and tight scheduling, Brown made the most of his set time, giving a mostly elated crowd a very energetic show. Whereas a number of the day's performers had been casually running through their old songs, the 34-year-old singer was crisp, sounding flawless vocally and not missing a beat with his sultry choreography. There was no phoning it in here. He even brought out Bow Wow and Tyga for good meaure.
On the flip side, 50 Cent performed afterward on the next-door Lovers Stage. And while he was all smiles, it was during these later sets that the flaws of the fest began to show. Fif ran through hit after hit to the pure delight of the crowd, but he couldn't ignore the obvious.
The rapper gave Usher kudos, declaring, "Great job putting this together," but he didn't stop there, quickly adding in: "Guess he don’t like getting punched in the face! This would’ve been a perfect event until the R&B n***as went crazy," seemingly a nod to the rumored brawl. His set also came to an abrupt end after he appeared to run over his allotted time and his sound got cut off.
At this point, it was now 8 p.m. The crowd was extremely thick, and while the nice thing about the festival setup was having both the Lovers & Friends Stages side-by-side, allowing fans to stay put or bounce between stages earlier in the day, as the sun went down, most fans were locked in, unwilling to leave as they waited for the later performers or rightfully unsure about losing their spot in the crowd, despite many of them having been on their feet for up to eight hours.
Not long after 50 Cent disappeared from the Lovers Stage, it was the festival ringmaster Usher who took the Friends stage, wearing a glistening black suit and flanked by an entourage of dancers. But his set was littered with audio problems throughout, even during what should have been incredible guest appearances from Jermaine Dupri, Muni Long and Summer Walker, the latter of whom was scheduled to perform later over at the Crunk Stage.
Usher performed numerous hit songs, but he frequently abandoned the microphone, as if he was letting the crowd sing, but it didn't quite play out as planned. Then at times, perhaps due to time constraints, he performed only seconds of various tracks, cutting from one song to the next without warning. And after Brown's smooth, sharply choreographed set, the greatest moment of Usher's own set was probably a later guest appearance from none other than Ari Lennox, whose own vocals were angelic and seemed to infuse new energy (and better audio quality) into the last few songs of Usher's performance, which closed with dramatic, back-to-back renditions of "OMG" and then "Yeah."
After that, it was a trio of ladies to close out the night. But not without some bumps in the road. Christina Aguilera kicked off the final sets on the Lovers Stage, opening with a fusion of "Stripped Intro" and "Stripped Pt. 2," then blazing into "Dirrty," while joined by a flock of dancers who moved seamlessly with her on stage as she performed the Redman collaboration before welcoming the producer himself on stage with her, marking their first time performing the song together in 20 years.
Aguilera's performance was electric, further punctuated by a cameo from Lil Kim for "Lady Marmalade" and then an emotional, stripped down version of "Beautiful." The only complaint about Christina's set was that it was notably short. Had she known that the followup performer was going to start late, maybe she might have been able to throw in a few more fan favorites.
Nonetheless, after Xtina exited, Mariah Carey was scheduled to close out the Friends Stage. But it didn't take long for fans to quickly realize her set wouldn't be starting on time. Her planned 9:55 start time had already been pushed back, as a majority of the sets on each of the main stages were delayed by 15 minutes from their original start times. But it wasn't until over half an hour later that Carey actually appeared on stage.
It wasn't immediately clear if there were production issues or if the singer was simply late, but her performance seemed to suggest the latter, as she performed what amounted to maybe four full songs, starting with a mashup of songs like "Vision of Love," "Honey," "Heartbreaker," and "Obsessed," before bringing out fellow Lovers & Friends act and collaborators Boyz II Men for a live rendition of their 1995 hit song "One Sweet Day," a moment which turned out to be the high point of Mariah's brisk set.
She also brought out Miguel for their song "Beautiful," as Miguel insisted that the crowd show love for Mariah, calling her a legend. Not long after Miguel left the stage, Carey also disappeared during a mix of "Emotions" and "Anytime You Need a Friend," leaving her dancers to entertain the crowd as she had apparently planned to change from her black mini dress with gold fringe into a sparkly, gold ensemble. But it didn't seem to work out and she returned to the stage carrying the gold dress still on a hanger, and told the audience she was supposed to wear it but she figured she would bring it out so everyone could see it. She then dropped it on the ground, apologizing to the designer, promising she'd pick it up afterwards as she launched into an abbreviated version of "We Belong Together."
Fans, many of whom had likely been in attendance solely or primarily to see Mariah Carey, were quick to note the awkwardness of her late and very short performance time, which also seemed to affect the start of Missy Elliott's closeout set on the Lovers Stage, which seemed to have production delays for a few minutes, including a false start with a video introducing the iconic Virginia rapper and then cutting out briefly before restarting and Elliott finally took the stage.
Making up for the lost time, the newly confirmed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee gave fans a whopping, 23-song set, launching quickly into songs like "Throw It Back," "We Run This" and "Get Ur Freak On," as well as "Work It," "Pass That Dutch" and then "So Gone," with a guest cameo from Monica before closing out with her big hit "Lose Control."
Ultimately, Lovers & Friends proved to be a nostalgic celebration, perhaps a crown jewel in this era of throwbacks which includes the newly reunited blink-182, who are going on a global tour this year and headlining the 2023 installment of the When We Were Young festival this fall, also in Vegas and also another Live Nation production which last year featured My Chemical Romance, Paramore, The Used, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, A Day to Remember and more. This year's version will feature blink and Green Day as headliners along with Good Charlotte, All Time Low, Something Corporate, Thrice, Yellowcard and others. Pop-punk lovers can hardly wait.
But similar to how When We Were Young jams an eye-popping number of artists into one day (at the same Las Vegas Festival Grounds), Lovers & Friends could probably benefit from a few tweaks if it intends to return in the future.
According to Vibe magazine, Usher has acknowledged the tight scheduling of Lovers & Friends, saying: "A lot of it is predicated on people’s schedules. And don’t think I haven’t had a conversation about it. But trying to figure out how to make certain that all 70,000 people who are going to be there feel comfortable and they get more than what they need, because it’s going to be a really amazing show."
No matter the mishaps, there is something magical about a lineup featuring so many favorites like Missy, Mariah, Usher, Christina, Nelly and others. Now, whether they can keep the magic going for years to come remains to be seen, but we'd like to hope they can make it happen.
See photos from Lovers & Friends 2023 below, by Dan DeSlover.