While the Meadows Music and Arts Festival took place this weekend in Queens, New York another festival was making its debut in midtown Manhattan. The Root Picnic in Bryant Park went on with far less drama, but it certainly wasn’t a boring two days. Here’s some cool things that went down at what was probably the most diverse event Bryant Park has seen in a while.
The kids love Lil Uzi Vert. The 22-year-old Philadelphian was the festival’s lone representative of hip-hop’s new jack contingent. There’s no question who’s his target audience: The fresh-faced fans hovering over the front guardrail disappeared into the crowd following the afternoon performance.
For about 30 minutes, Lil Uzi Vert thrived outside of the exhausting hip-hop fundamentalism vs. new school songwriting debate he helped catalyze. (The nerve of him refusing to perform over a DJ Premier beat!) Like the rock star he aspires to be, he hopped off the stage and climbed atop the barricade separating him from the crowd. His young fans reached out to grab his words like they were palpable playthings. Lil Uzi Vert could be hip-hop ephemera, or the genre’s future. When hasn’t that been said about any 22-year-old new jack?
What does X Ambassadors have to do with anything? Sometimes, in an effort to appear inviting to white folk, hip-hop focused organizers will bend to get the passable rock band of the moment instead of sleuthing for a good one. So, we get awkwardly billed acts like X Ambassadors, 2016’s Imagine Dragons. The large festivals offer the luxury of ignoring a bad band by having another stage, but Bryant Park is about two city blocks wide, so the two stages are forced to time their sets consecutively within earshot. Being forced to sit through the good-ole-boy schmaltz of “Renegades” is an unfair endurance test, but how much do you love D’Angelo?
Don’t sleep on John Mayer. D’Angelo sounded amazing during his brief headlining set, which was predominantly Voodoo material with two songs from Black Messiah and Brown Sugar. This goes without saying: Black Messiah is Black Moses and the Purple One combined in one press-shy man. Mayer, on the other hand, isn’t a symbol of soulful transcendence as much as he’s a bluesy cornball—Clapton for millennials. “His songs sound so much better live” is a cliché, too, but it’s also correct. Before D’Angelo came out, Mayer played with the Roots. Staples like “Gravity” and “Waiting on the World to Change” transformed into gospel soliloquies as his solos and the Roots’ versatility synced up.
Who attends a block party in Midtown? The audience combined Afropunk‘s brand of aspirational inclusiveness with small smatterings of national festival uppityness. It was a crowd knowledgable enough to know the lyrics to Black Rob’s “Whoa” that are not “Whoa!”
Ban children from festivals. You’re a mother walking with her 12-year-old by Bryant Park and Kevin Gates is singing about pussy. What do you do?
Black Thought is a hero. Two of the original “Live Mixtape” set headliners didn’t make it. (Freddie Gibbs was fighting a sexual assault case in Austria, and Styles P, uh, didn’t make it). Still, it was success: Black Thought, inarguably the most hip-hop-as-fuck man on late night television, opened the set with a few bars before a baton relay of old school legends ensued. Kool G Rap, Royce Da 5’9″, Pharoahe Monch, Freeway, Smif-N-Wessun, Big Daddy Kane, and Craig G all took the mic, before the set climaxed with “The Symphony.” Yeah, it was sans Masta Ace, but anything that puts Smif-N-Wessun across the street from a Pax is a success.
David Byrne with the Roots was fine. The first night’s headliners was a jam that melded D’Angelo, the Roots, and Mayer’s energies on stage . The second night was more about the Roots acting as a throughway for the line of performers. Byrne and Roots didn’t create combustive nuttiness; rather, the ?uestlove and company offered the red carpet for Byrne, who performed unrecorded material from the upcoming Joan of Arc musical. The one Talking Heads song he trotted out was “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” a rhythmically dense career achievement well-suited to the Roots’ live abilities.
Alicia Keys and Chic were on point. Keys had a string of underwhelming televised performances earlier this year, but the Wonder Woman sounded strong in Bryant Park. She did as well as she could have following Nile Rodgers, who performed his glittering run of hits (“Good Times,” “Get Lucky,” et al). He also took time out of the disco bliss to note he’s been over five years cancer free. The set was a tribute to a legend; it was also a celebration of life.
What’s the deal with Wu-Tang? Although their discography is still titanic, maybe they’re not quite grand finale material anymore. Is it a Wu-Tang performance if Ghostface Killah—Mr. “My Glock burst, leave in a hearse”—is absent? GZA showing up in an argyle sweater would’ve been fine if Black Thought didn’t have to rescue him on “Protect Ya Neck,” the set closer.
The Roots are no longer an enigma. The recent 20-year anniversary of Illadelph Halflife came with a jarring irony. The Roots felt vital because they stood unapologetically opposed to the Bad Boy-produced radio hits streaming out of New York in the late ’90s. But in 2016, the Legendary Roots Crew are a late night band with enough weight to hold a hip-hop festival in Bryant Park. They’re no longer an enigma; they’re part of the city’s brand.