Madonna paid homage to Prince by wearing his signature color and bringing another icon, Stevie Wonder, onstage to sing the classic “Purple Rain” at Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards.
Sitting atop a purple throne, Madonna kicked off the tribute with a version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince wrote and Sinead O’Connor recorded. Madonna was teary-eyed as she sang the song, while videos and photos of Prince were projected behind her.
Wonder, in a purple scarf, later joined her for “Purple Rain” as the audience at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas sang along.
“Most of all, thank you Prince Rogers Nelson for all that you’ve given us,” Madonna said after the performance.
Prince died on April 21 at 57. The icons collaborated on “Love Song” in 1989 and Madonna was met with criticism online when Billboard announced she would be the one to pay homage to The Purple One. Some felt she should not do the tribute alone, and others said a black artist should be involved.
“All of us live in the land of music and his departure was an earthquake,” Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson said before the performance. “I just want to take a moment to remember the great Prince Rogers Nelson.”
The Weeknd, the night’s big winner with eight awards, dedicated an award to Prince and told the audience, “I love him so much. I didn’t know him, but he was so close to me. He will always be an inspiration.” But The Weeknd lost the night’s big award — top artist — to Adele, who didn’t attend the show because she’s on tour.
Celine Dion and Kesha, both in the midst of drama in their personal lives, gave emotional performances during the three-hour show.
Dion sang Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” in strong form, sporting a shiny dress and backed by a powerful orchestra. Dion lost her husband and brother in the same week in January, and her son presented her with the Billboard icon award after her performance.
“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for crying. I want to be so strong for my family and kids. . . . I don’t want to cry in front of you,” a teary Dion said to Rene-Charles Angelil.
Dion said her late husband Rene Angelil will “continue to watch over me from up above.”
Kesha sang a heart-rending cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” She stood still in a cream suit and was backed by a pianist and violinist, hitting all the right notes and growing teary-eyed near the end.
She earned a standing ovation from the audience — a welcome response after the performance was initially nixed by her former mentor, Dr. Luke. The hit-making producer and his record label gave Kesha the OK to perform after she said she would not use the stage to discuss their ongoing lawsuit. They have been at odds since she accused of him of drugging, sexually abusing and emotionally tormenting her.
Other performances were not as strong: Justin Bieber sang his hits “Company” and “Sorry” with the help of a backing track as bright laser lights beamed throughout the performance. He walked from side to side, performing a few dance moves but didn’t match the energy of his backup dancers. Britney Spears — clearly lip syncing — kicked off the show in a shimmery red number with a performance that featured several of her hits, from “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Toxic.”
Demi Lovato’s performance of “Cool for the Summer” was among the night’s best. She made a statement by wearing a shirt featuring an inclusive bathroom symbol, taking a stance against North Carolina’s recent law addressing LGBT rights and bathroom use by transgender people. Lovato, who is on tour with Nick Jonas, recently canceled shows in North Carolina in protest of the state’s law.
Pink also impressed with her performance — featuring her signature high-flying moves — while she sang her new song, “Just Like Fire.”
Ariana Grande and Rihanna — who won the fan-voted Billboard chart achievement award — were also highlights with strong vocals.
Bieber was a double winner, including a win for top male artist, beating The Weeknd, Drake, Ed Sheeran and Fetty Wap.
“I’m not really a talker, but I’ll say thank you to my family. I want to thank God. I want to thank everyone that believed in me and believes in me,” Bieber said.
Adele’s best-seller “25” bested albums from Taylor Swift, Bieber, the Weeknd and Sheeran for top Billboard 200 album. At the show, she premiered her music video for the single, “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”
Gospel artist Kirk Franklin, rapper Wiz Khalifa, pop singer Charlie Puth and the bands twenty one pilots, Walk the Moon and Hillsong UNITED also won multiple awards. In a surprise win, Meek Mill’s “Dreams Worth More Than Money” won top rap album, beating Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Dr. Dre’s “Compton,” ”Drake’s “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and Drake and Future’s collaborative album, “What a Time to Be Alive.”
Ciara and Ludacris hosted the show. In the opening monologue, the rapper poked at this year’s Academy Awards, which featured all-white acting nominees.
“Unlike the Oscars, we actually have black nominees,” Ludacris said to laughs.