Kanye West, left, and Jay-Z, whose collaboration was called The Throne,… (Michael Buckner, Getty…)
During Sunday's live telecast of the 2012 BET Awards, anticipation reigned, with questions filling Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium.
What would polarizing singer Chris Brown say? How would soul singer D'Angelo's highly awaited comeback performance fare? And how would BET pay tribute to fallen pop titan Whitney Houston, whose February death cast a shadow over the Grammys?
The annual show, which started in 2001, is known for its over-the-top performances and drama onstage and last year pulled in 7.7 million viewers. Its tagline this year was "Too big to miss" — a phrase that host Samuel L. Jacksonrapped during his expletive-filled freestyle to Jay-Z's and Kanye West's song "... in Paris."
Jackson's performance was one of many that made the BET Awards as notable for its star power as its bleeped-out moments. Awards are handed out in a variety of categories, including film and sports, but the awards show's main focus is music.
The most anticipated moment of the night was the tribute to Houston. Led by her mother, Cissy Houston, the emotional segment saw Mariah Carey and Houston's castmates from "Waiting to Exhale" musing about their bond.
Because Houston died Feb. 11, the day before the Grammy telecast, that awards show had little time to plan a tribute. BET filled that void. Monica and Brandy — the two divas whom Houston groomed over the years — gave show-stopping performances before Houston's mother performed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in front of a large graphic of her and her daughter singing together. She, and the audience, shed tears.
The moving tribute came after a performance by gospel artist Yolanda Adams, who had some words of wisdom for artists in the wake of Houston's death.
"We need all of y'all.… I'm saying the world. Please make sure you're using your gift responsibly, wisely. We're all watching," she said as she clutched her trophy for best gospel artist.
Also Sunday, the often-embattled Brown made his first high-profile appearance following a highly publicized bar melee last month that reportedly involved him, Canadian hip-hop artist Drake and up-and-coming rapper Meek Mill.
No sign of Drake (whose non-appearance led to his win being off camera), but Meek performed with his Maybach Music Group, and Brown hit the stage more than midway through the telecast.
Earlier in the weekend a diss track from Brown toward Drake surfaced online, but Sunday's performance wasn't about fueling that particular beef.
Shirtless, with half his chest painted, Brown emerged in a sea of strobe lights and tore through a medley of "Don't Wake Me Up" and "Turn Up the Music" without any nods toward the ongoing drama.
Brown captivated the audience with his frenetic footwork, although the singer struggled with a number of flat notes that caused murmurs among some audience members. But Brown preferred to leave the drama off the stage and on the Internet.
The return of D'Angelo was also one of the evening's highlights. The soul singer hasn't made an album in 12 years, and his live appearances have been rare and spotty.
But Sunday night he won over audience members like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian (who wore matching white outfits) with a voice that seems to have only gotten better with age — even if too much attention was given to his missing six-pack abs.
The award for best female R&B artist went to Beyonce, who thanked the event's commitment to showcasing the genre. Pop artist and rapper Nicki Minaj, who left her cotton-candy-pink wig and pop hits at home, won the female hip-hop trophy for a third consecutive year. Brown was named best male R&B artist.
"I'm bad at losing, I'm bad at winning.... I'm always saying the wrong thing," West said when he accepted the best group trophy for The Throne, his collaboration with Jay-Z. Earlier the Chicago rapper delivered a scene-stealing freestyle after running through "Mercy" and "Cold."
In the evening's sole chair-clenching race, Wale bested the holy trinity of Beyonce, Jay-Z and West in the collaboration category with his hit "Lotus Flower Bomb."