Monday, Aug. 8, 2005 | 8:19 a.m.
Queen Latifah came in with unmatched credentials; Erykah Badu with heaps of critical acclaim.
But when Saturday's Sugar Water Festival at Mandalay Bay Events Center let out around midnight, there was little doubt which performer had won the night.
Philadelphian Jill Scott took full advantage of a prime slot between her two more famous billmates, wowing the crowd of more than 7,000 with her booming voice, her beaming smile and her balmy tunes.
Even so, the 33-year-old poet-turned-singer declined to elevate herself to the rank of "diva," explaining that the designation should be reserved for such veterans as Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross and the Strip's own Celine Dion.
"It takes time and energy to grow into a diva," Scott announced. "I've been doing this for five years. Check back with me in another 10."
One woman Scott said does deserve the prestigious label is Queen Latifah, the 35-year-old hip-hop pioneer-turned-actress who conceived this summer's traveling Sugar Water Festival.
After a too-short opening set by British rap-meets-soul duo Floetry and one-song collaboration between the three headliners, Latifah got the audience moving immediately with "Ladies First," the unofficial theme song of the all-female tour.
Latifah's clothing -- a dressy, black sleeveless tunic over casual, faded jeans -- mirrored her set list, which blended old-school rap with jazz and pop standards from last year's "Dana Owens Album."
Latifah pulled off the combination with surprising ease, bouncing and gesturing with her hands during hip-hop moments and standing in place for serious and stately moments while singing the classics.
She went into the crowd for "U.N.I.T.Y." and tossed in an improvised line about Las Vegas in a cover of The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin'."
As strongly as the Queen's voice might have rang out on "Baby Get Lost" and "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh," however, it wasn't long before Scott's powerful pipes overshadowed those efforts.
A favorite on the neo-soul scene since debuting with the 2000 album "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1," Scott has been steadily gaining confidence, as demonstrated on last year's long-awaited follow-up disc, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2."
She sounded even more assured Saturday night, opening with the empowerment anthem "Golden" -- "I'm taking my freedom / Pulling it off the shelf / Putting it on my chain / Wearing it around my neck" -- and staying sharp for her entire 50-minute set.
Scott's songs of good love and heartache were steeped in attitude, as she worked her voice to the depths of her considerable range and back into the cosmos.
Her operatic gymnastics in "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)" were the concert's most memorable moment, but every song from her lips was a highlight, from the half-spoken "Cross My Mind" to the sprightly "Whatever."
Unfortunately, while Latifah and Scott were performing, the event got off schedule. And that meant, with the venue's midnight curfew looming, Badu's set became a somewhat awkward affair, with the 34-year-old Texan keeping one eye on the clock and referring frequently to her time limit.
Badu even cut crowd favorite "Tyrone" after less than one full verse, hurrying to another tune instead.
Still, the mystical, neo-soul siren can always be counted on for some engaging live music, and this time out was no exception.
Badu's extended version of "Back in the Day (Puff)" was freewheeling and fun, while a sublime rendition of "Otherside of the Game" showed a hypnotic voice that earns the vocalist deserved comparisons to Billie Holiday.
Latifah, Scott and Badu were scheduled to team for Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" to cap the night, but that tune was scrapped because of time constraints. Instead, the three women simply stood together and waved at the many exhausted fans who stayed put for the entire four-hour event.
The omission was probably just as well. Better to remember each woman for the considerable individual skills she brought to the Sugar Water stage than for some forced joint finale that couldn't possibly measure up.