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Prince's return shrouded in mystery as he helps mark Essence Fest's 20th celebration

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NEW ORLEANS - Uttering his signature, "We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," Prince opened his set for the 20th celebration of the Essence Festival and showed thousands Friday why a 10-year wait isn't a bad thing.

As the first licks of "Let's Go Crazy," rang throughout the Superdome, thousands in the audience — already on their feet in anticipation — stayed there until the final rifts of "Purple Rain" left the air.

It was the second time the crowd got a taste of "Let's Go Crazy." Earlier, he made a surprise cameo appearance during Janelle Monae's rendition of the song.

Prince closed the festival's main stage with a litany of his hits, including "Kiss," ''Raspberry Beret," ''When Doves Cry," ''Controversy," ''1999," and a slowed-down version of "Little Red Corvette" and "Nothing Compares to You."

Ten years ago, Prince headlined that anniversary, reuniting with some of the players in his musical past — Morris Day and The Time, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and former protege Sheila E. The high-energy show ended with an emotional performance of Prince's megahit "Purple Rain."

In 2014, he again ended his show with "Purple Rain," to the delight of the crowd.

Singer Lianne Le Halvas joined him in a duet on "Sometimes It Snows in April," before New Orleans' own Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews contributed a soaring solo. Andrews jammed the final portion of the show, which included covers of "The Bird" and "Jungle Love," made famous by Prince associates, Morris Day and The Time and Shelia E's "Glamorous Life."

He left the stage, telling the crowd, "Good night, New Orleans." For at least two minutes, the stage stayed dark before the familiar strains of his signature song, "Purple Rain," wafted through the air and his silhouette returned.

"Thirty years ago today this was the sound," he said. "You can sing if you want to."

And sing, they did.

Earlier in her set, Monae danced and strutted across the stage, working up a sweat as she entertained the crowd with her songs, "Primetime" and "Electric Lady."

When guitarist Nile Rodgers took the stage, Monae joined him for a performance of "We Are Family," led by Kathy Sledge, who with her sisters "Sister Sledge" made the song famous.

Chic ran through their top hits, "Everybody Dance," ''I Want Your Love," and "Le Freak." Prince also joined his set, playing guitar on their song, "Dance, Dance, Dance."

The band's last song was "Good Times" and Rodgers invited members of the audience to join them on stage to dance along for an old school dance party.

To mark the festival's 20th celebration, organizers said they wanted the milestone anniversary to be as special or better than anything anyone had ever experienced. And, who better to help make that happen than Prince, said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc.

The festival runs through Sunday, with free daily programming and events inside the city's convention and nightly ticketed concerts in the Superdome.

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