LOS ANGELES — It was a night of comebacks at the BET Awards, and none more unexpected than Chris Brown performing an emotional tribute to Michael Jackson.
The embattled pop star has mostly kept a low profile since pleading guilty to felony assault for beating up Rihanna in February 2009. But here he was, center stage, mimicking Jackson’s signature dance moves with almost eerie accuracy. Introduced by Jermaine Jackson, Brown embodied the King of Pop, wearing his fedora and spangled glove and moonwalking across the stage to “Billie Jean.”
Then, as Brown grabbed a microphone to sing “Man in the Mirror,” he broke down in tears. His voice cracked, he couldn’t sing, and at one point he crumpled to the stage in apparent agony. It was a moving moment made even more so by the song’s lyrics and Brown’s recent past.
The 21-year-old returned to the stage later in the show when he won the AOL “fandemonium award.”
“I let you all down before, but I won’t do it again. I promise you,” he said.
Sunday’s ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium began with a comeback: Kanye West opened the show atop a volcano onstage in his first TV appearance since dissing Taylor Swift at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
T.I. also made a triumphant return to television in his first TV performance since being released from prison in December.
El DeBarge also made a comeback, his falsetto undiminished, performing hits “I Like It,” “Time Will Reveal” and “Rhythm of the Night.”
Host Queen Latifah was also musical, first singing to famous members of the audience, then returning to her rap roots rhyming about the royalty in the audience: herself and Prince, who received BET’s lifetime achievement award.
The venerable entertainer was feted with an all-female musical tribute. Janelle Monae offered an energetic take on “Let’s Go Crazy.” Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding accompanied herself on standup bass for “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Alicia Keys started behind the piano, then climbed on top of it, when she sang “Adore,” and Patti LaBelle kicked off her shoes to give her all to “Purple Rain.”
Prince, who wore a tunic with his own image on it, seemed humbled by the tribute.
“I’m just so thankful to be a part of this world of music,” he said. “Thanks for a wonderful night. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Performances were so plentiful during the show that prizes were almost secondary.
Usher was backed by a string section as he sang “There Goes My Baby.” Drake, who was named best male hip-hop artist, performed his hit “Thank Me Later.” B.o.B. was joined by Keyshia Cole, and later Eminem, on “Airplanes.” Eminem continued with his new single, “Not Afraid,” backed by a choir. Trey Songz, who was named best male R&B artist, crooned his hit, “Yo Side of the Bed,” as a banner onstage behind him read, “pray for our soldiers and their families.”
Alicia Keys performed a medley of her hits, bookended by two awards. She won for female R&B artist and best collaboration for her song with Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.”
John Legend was presented with BET’s humanitarian award for his work on the Show Me Campaign, which aims to eradicate poverty worldwide through education and health care. He challenged his peers to become humanitarians as well.
The BET Awards honor the year’s best in music, sports and film in 19 categories.
Serena Williams won sportswoman of the year and LeBron James was sportsman of the year. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga won video of the year for “Video Phone,” with Rihanna given the viewer’s choice award for her song with Young Jeezy, “Hard.”
Sunday’s show also introduced emerging musicians to the audience through BET’s Music Matters initiative, and shined a spotlight on four citizens who are contributing to their communities through education and outreach.