For my first time attending the Roots Picnic, this 9th year of the fest certainly did not disappoint. Being a New Yorker and having one of the best bands in The Roots, holding down their residence at Jimmy Fallon, I was eager to see what their hometown fest had to offer.
First off, one of my favorite NY-based bands, Paris Monster, grabbed my attention with an early afternoon of some of my favorite soulful tunes, including the very first song by them that caught my attention, “A Vision Complete.” Paris Monster has been playing residencies and jam-packed shows all over NY, so it was no surprise to see the sparse audience at the North Stage fill in quickly to hear what Josh and Geoff had to offer. Part of the attention was drummed up (no pun intended), by none other than Roots drummer Questlove, who enthusiastically retweeted a video of their two-man show.
Following up at the South Stage, one of many acts that I haven’t had the chance to see yet were setting their stage. LOLAWOLF, comprised of Zoe Kravitz, Jimmy Giannopoulos and James Levy (minus James, unfortunately) wowed the crowd with smooth, ethereal vocals and trippy beats. Zoe snaked her way back and forth across the stage, stopping only to beat on a strategically placed floor tom, and talk to the crowd a bit. Squeals and hollers when Zoe finally removed her sunglasses to take in the scene before her, as the crowd readily engaged with each song, sang each lyric.
Now at the North Stage, I was eager to finally see Willow Smith perform. I haven’t tuned into her music since the “Whip My Hair” craze, but it was clear she was all grown up since that time. Sporting fresh dreadlocks, and an all black crop top/skirt combo, Willow commanded the stage like a seasoned professional. I idly wondered if Will Smith would make a cameo at some point during her performance, being from Philly and all, and lo and behold, out comes Will to perform his mega hit, “Summertime.” Willow’s set met all my expectations, and surprisingly, she also had quite a voice on her that has also gained strength over the years.
Ibeyi were still setting up as I made my way back over to the South Stage. Dressed in red jumpsuits, the French-cuban twin sister duo took strong influences from Yoruba chants and jazz and formed a sound that snaked its way into everyone’s bodies and forced them to move. By the end of their performance, they stood back, smiling at the crowd’s enthusiasm for a bit of call and response.
Back at the North Stage, Migos were amping the crowd up with their brand of hip-hop. Nonstop bouncing, hands in the air, and rapping along word for word, the crowd knew every single word of every single song. I admittedly haven’t listened to Migos much before this festival, but they impressed me with how much they did in the short time they were onstage.
Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals owned their performance from start to finish. Anderson proved to be a tour de force, showing off his skills on drums, singing, and rapping. I’ve been happily listening to his album for about a week now, and it’s always a treat to hear musicians carve their own niche. His set was definitely one of my favorites of the day.
Admittedly, I hadn’t kept up with Jidenna since his supremely catchy “Classic Man.” But over at the North Stage, he showed he has been hard at work, cracking out crowd pleasers left and right. Impeccably dressed to the nines despite the high temps, Jidenna was charming and fun to watch onstage, which made his set seem impossibly short.
Another artist I was itching to see was Kehlani. Considering she’s been getting a lot of flack recently in her personal life, it was good to see her stride out onstage, confident and unfazed by it all. Not to mention the fact that she can sing like you would not believe. I was a little dumbfounded at how great she managed to sound at an outdoor festival. Seems as if the crowd agreed with my sentiments as well, readily finishing lines of songs for her without prompting. The Bay Area songstress was simply accompanied by 2 backup dancers, and Kehlani, being no slouch with dance moves herself, kept up with each move, while hitting her notes flawlessly. To put the final cherry on her performance, she sat down at the edge of the stage for a slow ballad.
Swizz Beats was the next performer I went to check out, and the crowd was hyped up even before he took the stage. Whether you enjoy his music or not, you have to admit Swizz was responsible for a large amount of hits over the years, evident from the deafening sounds of the crowd responding to his performance.
Being a true 90’s hip-hop fan, I was also looking forward to seeing DMX. DMX is still an incredible performer despite his personal woes. Alternating between his signature barking noises and yelling out “WHERE MY DOGS AT,” X took the time to thank God for his blessings, and even took a moment to bring out his father, who he had recently forged a relationship with. Considering that many of his hits also came from Swizz Beats, it was no surprise to see Swizz emerge from the wings to rock the crowd for the remainder of DMX’s performance. His security also got a workout as the rapper climbed atop large speaker stacks, and ended up stripped of his shirt, bare-chested and growling at the audience. It was truly one of the best performances of the festival.
In clear contrast, directly after DMX came soul-singer Leon Bridges. The crowd was clearly still riled up from DMX’s performance, so Bridges’ easy going tunes struggled to make an impact on the crowd… that is until he unexpectedly covered Ginuwine’s “My Pony.” Coming from a singer who croons about old school love, and holding hands, talk of “riding ponies” was the wakeup call that everyone needed to fall into a groove during his set, ending it on a very high note.
The final act of the night came from none other than the legendary Roots, and R&B singer Usher. Starting off their set Black Thought led the band through a medley of songs, with his lyrics landing like gut punches, and setting heads spinning. Black Thought is one of my favorite lyricists and also one of the most underrated, but he wasted no time in reminding everyone it was “their house.” After about 20 minutes, Usher strolled out onto the stage and launched one of the most epic collaborative performances I have ever witnessed in my life. Usher is no slouch when it comes to performing, as I’ve seen him countless times over the years. But this collaborative effort, with live instrumentation from The Roots, impeccable free-styling throughout from Black Thought and the re-imagining of some of Usher’s biggest hits, like “Nice & Slow,” “You Got It Bad,” “Good Kisser,” “Confessions,” “Burn” and countless others. Now I’ve been an Usher fan since my high school years, but this felt like something infinitely special. Hearing a crowd of thousands singing the “hoo hoos” on “Burn” brought such a smile to Usher’s face, as well as mine too. Usher also managed to pay tribute to Muhammed Ali, and worked in a few lines of Prince’s “Adore” to honor his Royal Purpleness. Jeremy Ellis also took about 15 minutes to throw down his own tribute to Prince, including a of chopped and screwed versions of “Erotic City.” When Ellis starting playing Usher’s huge hit “Yeah,” everyone was already filing out of the festival… until Usher ran back onstage with Lil Jon. Yes. Lil Jon… WHAT! OKAY! I absolutely lost the last shred of my composure at that second, running to the barricade and singing along like I was 18 again. Finally ending his set with the aptly titled “Climax,” I, along with countless others pleaded with Usher and The Roots to take this collaboration on the road. Usher flashed his wide grin in response as a promise of “we’ll see.”
Overall, my first experience at the Roots Picnic was an incredible one. It was a carefully curated lineup that had something for everyone to enjoy. Those of you looking forward to next year’s fest won’t have to wait too much longer. A NYC edition of the Picnic was just announced, and it is sure to be worth every single penny.
Article: Lesley Keller