The highlight of last night’s BET Awards was not Kendrick Lamar deservedly winning a whole bunch of awards, or even Erykah Badu assisting an even-better-than-the-album version of Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” No, it was 60-year-old Charlie Wilson receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, then performing with Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, and Snoop Dogg — all of whom seemed appropriately negligible while bobbing and weaving around Wilson’s full-bodied performance: “You Are” (Wilson’s 2010 song from Just Charlie), “Beautiful” (his 2002 collaboration with Pharrell and Snoop), “Signs” (another Snoop track that also featured Timberlake), “You Dropped a Bomb On Me,” the most well-known hit from his former group the Gap Band, plus another Gap Band hit, “Outstanding.”
Those big-deal rap and R&B stars backing him up seemed less there to keep people interested in some old guy than to provide some context. Wilson’s voice was afforded a “You might know me from” framing on those Snoop hits; and his open-hearted spirit was presented as the place that Timberlake’s been trying to get with his comeback. Not to mention, the performance didn’t bend over backwards to force renewed importance on Charlie Wilson because, well, he’s one of the few R&B veterans who really is still important. He’s the 2010’s Ron Isley as Mr. Biggs, but moreso. Surely, a duet between Wilson and Future (one of rap’s biggest stars right now, inexplicably close to being a non-entity at the awards) would’ve been some gorgeous, warbly-voiced connect-the-dots moment with youth appeal. But Uncle Charlie can get along just fine without that sort of thing.
As a testament to Wilson’s skills, consider the fact that there weren’t any nods to him becoming one of the many, many voices and talents woven through Kanye West’s past few event records: He’s weirdly singing along with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (why didn’t Vernon come out instead of Timberlake?), or he’s the slow-burn voice that rises above the G.O.O.D. Music roster on that royal-rumble of a track, “All of the Lights.” On Yeezus, Wilson has arguably the most visceral moment that actually involves the human voice — that jumpcut bridge on “Bound 2”: “I know you’re tired of loving, with nobody to love.” Tellingly, producer WirokS, has been constructing an all-Wilson version of “Bound 2” over on SoundCloud, which is perhaps the most appropriate tribute to the man’s skills. It’s a soulman tucked inside of a soul sample, pushing the pathos to a whole other level, affording the album a moment of empathy; An ’80s slow-jamming, hard-funk-friendly grandpa doing ‘Ye’s emotional heavy lifting.
BET honored a legend, and they did so without making it feel like a send-off. It was a celebration of Wilson’s continuing vigor and . A few minutes after the performance, a friend of mine texted to tell me that before BET Awards, he assumed Charlie Wilson was just one of the many young-ish buck R&B singers hovering around the periphery of rap albums, like Bilal or James Fauntleroy. My guess is there were plenty of others watching who thought the same thing. It’s nice for BET to put a face to the name, especially for someone who is moving into his sixties. Often, someone even half that age is put out to pasture.