The 11th annual Roots Picnic might have been its most unpredictable yet

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Lil Uzi Vert | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

With the threat of rain throughout the day, the usual aesthetic of Roots Picnic went from its usual summer funk flower child to practical dress to prepare for potentially soaking rains and muddy conditions. Luckily the rain held off…for a bit…but we’ll get to that.

The day began sunny and hot when Philly’s own Bri Steves took to the stage. Her set was fun and energetic and featured reworkings of Drake’s “Nice For What?,” and the Fugees’ arrangement of “Killing Me Softly.” She ended with her ready for summer single “Jealousy.” Her set was a preview of things to come for the day – female artists who are respected for their craft as much as their male counterparts.

Bri Steves | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Next was Sun Ra Arkestra, fronted by saxophone legend Marshall Allen. The band showed that they were serious about bringing some space jazz to us when saxophonist Knoel Scott removed his instrument to do handstands and flips for the crowd. Seeing “Rocket Number Nine,” and “Space Is the Place,” live was an experience. Singer Tara Middleton’s voice, which can be deep and silky one minute and commanding the next, cut through the band’s organized chaos which was led amazingly by 94 year old Allen. Allen himself also played, squawked, and swung throughout the set and demonstrated why the Arkestra is still a must-see when they come to your town.

Sun Ra Arkestra | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The trend of women in the spotlight continued with Rapsody, who released the excellent Laila’s Wisdom last year has become a sage since the last time I saw her at the Made in America festival. Her band has grown from just a DJ to DJ and full band, complete with a horn section. Her banter was philosophical and she thanked the crowd, both men and women, who have supported her throughout the years. She also got playful, bringing up a guy from the crowd to sing “A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love,” into a bit of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

Rapsody | photo by Maureen Walsh for WXPN

Rapsody’s set had me marveling that 20 years ago, most of the men in the crowd would have been heckling her and saying gross things to her. Yesterday, men were rocking with Rapsody and yelling the words to her songs as much as everyone else. It’s a wonderful thing that in 2018, despite all of the ugly things going on, in art, everyone respects the person on stage speaking their truth, no matter who they are.

Tierra Whack fans | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

While Rapsody was on the North Stage, Philly rapper Tierra Whack took the Oasis Stage to crowd of devoted fans, friends and family. “My mom’s backstage,” she told the crowd. “Everybody say ‘HI MAMA WHACK!’” The MC and singer was riding on the energy of her just-released, imaginative Whack World visual album, and fans in front waved cardboard cutouts for the occasion – a “W” of interlinked hands, and a globe. It was in many ways a hometown lovefest, with Whack admitting that she called out of work to play the gig – “I just told them, it’s the Roots Picnic!” – and shouting out her old Spanish teacher upon spotting them in the crowd. But her strength is in her sound – a mix of clubby trap, melodic R&B, left-of-center art pop and rapid-fire old school bars. “Pet Cemetery” from Whack World was a standout, as was her 2017 single “Toe Jam,” which easily got the hook “Crack kills, if it don’t get you, Whack will” stuck in the heads of everyone watching.

Tierra Whack | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Next, was the Toronto ensemble Badbadnotgood who ran the gamut of disco, jazz, funk, hip-hop and dreamy vibes in their set. The band built up its name collaborating with and remixing rappers like Ghostface Killah, Snoop Dogg, and Kendrick Lamar, but it kept its South Stage set instrumental, highlighting its 2016 outing IV. Though it meandered at points, the band switched up sounds enough to keep it interesting, making a good compliment to the midafternoon breeze.

Badbadnotgood | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

I then stopped by the Podcast Stage to catch a live recording of Roots Picnic curator and Roots drummer Questlove’s podcast Questlove Supreme. His guest was none other than Marc Lamont Hill – an academic, a political and cultural commentator, and owner of my favorite neighborhood coffee/book shop, Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown. Lamont Hill, Questlove, Laiya St. Clair, Steve Mandel, Bill Sherman, and Phonte Coleman discussed a LOT in their 45 minute time slot – Pusha v Drake, Ye, Jill Stein and the two-party system, attempting to interview R. Kelly, prison reform versus the dissolution of prisons, favorite Philly strip clubs, and a lot in between. The debate was spirited and everyone brought up great points. It was insightful to hear Little Brother / Foreign Exchange’s Phonte give his take on how rap beefs should and do play out, as well as seeing Hill discuss Kanye without being interrupted by fellow CNN commentator Paris Dennard 50 times.

Questlove Supreme | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

After my break from music was over, I ran over to the North Stage for the first “big” set of the day: Black Thought’s annual Live Mixtape set. This set is always a highlight, because who knows who will stop by and share the stage with Thought? But it was doubly exciting this year, since it was the first Picnic since both his Hot 97 freestyle that went viral and set Twitter ablaze, and his new mixtape with 9th Wonder, Streams of Thought Vol. 1, which was released Friday.

Black Thought’s Live Mixtape | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

The set did not disappoint, with luminaries such as Fabolous, Jadakiss, and Styles P playing their hits and fan favorites such as “All About the Benjamins,” “You Be Killin Em,” “Breathe,” and “Good Times,” with Black Thought contributing verses and playing hypeman, while highlighting cuts from Streams like “Making A Murderer” and “Twofifteen.”

Black Thought’s Live Mixtape | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Dirty Projectors were up next at the South Stage. By this point, the heat had broken but the drizzling commenced and alcohol and consumption of other substances was hitting the crowd. Probably not the best time to have a band with complex melodies, clever lyrics and little stage presence play a set.

Dirty Projectors | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

After waiting about an hour in a food truck line and missing DJ Drama’s set (which featured TI and Cam’ron….sigh…), I took another break from the music to watch ESPN’s Jemele Hill host a talk about breaking barriers with some of the top black women entrepreneurs in the country: Bozoma Saint John of Uber, Shari Bryant of Atlantic Records, Amber Grimes of Spotify and Anowa Adjah of Anowa Adjah Works. The discussion was a frank one about the realities and challenges of women of color succeeding in corporate America. Again, I couldn’t help thinking how remarkable that a festival has this many women-centric events and isn’t called “Lillith Fair.” Please keep this up, Quest!

Breaking Barriers panel | photo by Maureen Walsh for WXPN
Breaking Barriers panel | photo by Maureen Walsh for WXPN

On the South Stage, Toronto R&B act DVSN delivered earnest, longing melodies backed by harmonizing vocalists and dark, moody synthesizer / rock textures. The sound, combined with hyperdramtic proclamations like “Anybody out there have an ex that still wants them? I do, and this song’s about that,” found them filling the Weeknd role in this year’s bill. But DVSN’s Daniel Daley is a charismatic frontperson with a powerful voice, enough so that watching and listening never became boring.

DVSN | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

On the North stage, Atlanta’s 6lack rapped, sang, and danced while a band backed him and an elaborate grid of LED screens that made the setup appear more ornate and elaborate than it actually was. A slow-burn success story driven by internet buzz, 6lack sounded sincerely humbled and grateful as he highlighted his 2016 debut FREE 6LACK and its single “Prblms”: “Two years ago, I didn’t have nothing, and today I’m here with y’all.”

6lack | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Now for the finale: time to squeeze through the crowd for Lil Uzi Vert, the Iggy Pop of hip-hop. It took some time to get started, with his DJ warming up the crowd for about 15 minutes and bringing out Asaad – a longtime Philly rapper who’s become a Lil Uzi protege – to perform his new single “Wuss” to an increasingly impatient crowd. Finally the man himself appeared, donned in a bright red vinyl jacket and kinky red leather outfit underneath. He mugged for the cameras, jumped into the VIP section and climbed through the crowd during “Do What I Want.” While his songs aren’t the deepest lyrically (I don’t think he’ll be a guest at the Live Mixtape anytime soon), that’s not the point. The kids love him, his music is infectious, and he is a hell of a showman.

Lil Uzi Vert | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Welp, here’s what happened next: I left Uzi’s set early because the crowd was told throught the entire festival needed to put our phones in Yondr pouches before the super secret Dave Chappelle emceed jam session that was to close the night. Wanting to get in before the crowd backed up, I walked straight through to the North Stage and claimed a spot in the crowd with not a Yondr pouch to be found. That should have been my first warning that the night was not going to go as planned. As soon as the first Roots song started, so did the rain. It wasn’t a drizzle this time, it was a deluge. We all tried to cram into an area under the roof of the North Stage but there was an inch of water on the sidewalk already, along with various soggy squishy things that everybody around me hoped were discarded blankets. We all did our best to enjoy The Roots as they opened with Black Thought’s “Hot 97 Freestyle,” and then launched right into “Clones” – “this is going to be soo goood!,” we thought — then 2 Chainz came out, rapped the chorus to Chance’s “No Problem,” and everything stopped. My second….sigh….of the night. The crowd all looked at one another and then looked at the red alert sign newly posted on the LED screen. We were all asked to seek shelter due to the storm. About 15 minutes later, they announced the remainder of the show was canceled.

While it’s irritating that we did not get to see Brandy, or the surprises The Roots had in store for us, getting hit by lightning is not something I wish on anyone. It could have been worse — it could have poured all day, but it did not. We all got to see a lot of memorable music and discussions and I’m sure the running through the deluge portion of the night was something friends will be laughing about in the weeks to come. Thanks for another Picnic, Roots Crew, can’t wait to see what’s in store for the 12th Annual.

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