T-Pain transformed the BET Awards into a circus Tuesday with a multi-artist medley that showed the rapper and singer's wide-ranging influence on urban music, while best-selling rapper Lil Wayne and songstress Alicia Keys gave rousing performances of their own.
Wearing a spangled top hat, T-Pain - nominated for a leading five BET Awards - shared the stage with fellow nominees Flo Rida, Rick Ross, Ludacris and Big Boi, along with a bevy of big-top freaks, including fire eaters and acrobats.
"This industry is my circus," said T-Pain. "Ride with the ringleader."
Then T-Pain - whose nominations came not for his own hits but for his collaborations with others, and whose vocoder-assisted voice is among the most ubiquitous in urban music - gave a sample of his musical assists over the past year.
Double nominee Flo Rida performed his hit with T-Pain, "Low"; a bare-chested Ross flaunted his gut while singing his song with T-Pain, "Boss"; and all joined in on the collaborative "I'm So Hood."
Not to be outdone, the ladies offered a showstopping performance of their own, led by double nominee Keys. Rocking a sleek bob and skintight jeans, Keys invited vintage girl groups SWV, En Vogue and TLC to join her onstage for a medley of their biggest hits. By the time they closed with TLC's "Waterfalls," the crowd at the Shrine Auditorium was on its feet. Even Kanye West was singing along.
Viewers Choice award winner Lil Wayne was set to deliver the night's most anticipated performance, and he didn't disappoint. Joined by uber-collaborator T-Pain, who wore a t-shirt that read "T-Wayne," Lil Wayne delivered a medley of hits including "A Milli" and his No. 1 smash "Lollipop."
West, who won awards for best male hip-hop artist and best collaboration for his song with T-Pain, "Good Life," used his victories to praise both T-Pain and Lil Wayne.
"We're blessed to be in this man's presence," West said of T-Pain, whom he called "a genius." "I'll let y'all know because I'm one of the kings of this game. My opinion counts."
West called Lil Wayne "my fiercest competition." The New Orleans-based rapper last week sold 1 million copies of "Tha Carter III" for the year's best sales debut.
"You scared me man," West said. "Congratulations on selling over a million records. And they say hip hop is dead."
After tributes by Jill Scott and Maxwell, Lifetime Achievement Award winner Al Green delivered a smash performance of his own, hitting all the high notes on his hits "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness."
Diddy, Ludacris and the rest of the awards-show audience sang along as the 62-year-old Reverend Green shook his booty on stage.
"I'm sorry I didn't sing as well as I could. I got scared," a modest Green confessed backstage.
Queen Latifah introduced Humanitarian Award recipient Quincy Jones, calling him "an international artist, an innovator ... and a leader."
"He showed us black entertainment is more than just a hustle," she said. "It's more than just selling albums. It's about inspiration."
Jones said growing up on the south side of Chicago during the depression moved him to give back to people in need.
"My piece of bread only belongs to me if everybody has a piece to eat," he said.
Receiving the award "is one of the very treasured moments of my life," Jones said, "and I always hope to live up to this honour."
A somber moment came when UGK was named best group. Bun B honoured his fallen bandmate, Pimp C, who died in December at age 33 from complications of sleep apnea.
"It's hard to do this with my brother not being here," Bun B said, while joined onstage with Pimp C's wife. "We want to thank y'all for supporting UGK all these years. It's still UGK for life... Long live Pimp C."
Usher opened the show pyrotechnics-filled performance as he sang "Love in this Club." The highly choreographed set, which featured Usher pop-locking, gyrating and grooving his way across the stage with a bevy of voluptuous dancers, gave the show a high-energy start.
Host D.L. Hughley's opening monologue was a little less explosive - his jokes about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the recently acquitted R. Kelly and U.S. President Bush fell flat - but he didn't slow the pace of the performance-heavy show.
Key collaborations kept the show buzzing along.
Singer (and BET reality star) Keyshia Cole gave a glamorous performance of her ballad "Heaven Sent," descending from the ceiling while wearing a long flowing gown, before a dancer ripped it off, revealing a white top and shorts as she sang her hit "Let It Go" with Lil Kim.
West rapped alongside Young Jeezy in performance that was marked by its omissions - censors muted much of their performance. Chris Brown, who was seated next to rumoured girlfriend Rihanna, won the night's first award: best male R&B artist. Brown was later joined onstage by Ciara for a sizzling performance that showed off each artist's dance skills, and a shirtless Nelly unveiled a new song with Fergie.
Kobe Bryant and Missy Elliott were early winners, but the best male athlete and female hip-hop artist weren't there to collect their awards, nor was the evening's best new artist winner, The-Dream.
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