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Cassie Owens / Billy Penn

Roots Picnic 2016: DMX gives a sermon, Will Smith performs ‘Summertime’ and Usher goes retro

Another fantastic show took place at the Festival Pier, but the end of day was unusual.

For years, Roots frontman Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter has been saying the group would like to see the Roots Picnic become like a Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza. This Roots Picnic was still only one day, and attendance was eight to 14 times smaller that what those festivals pull in (6ABC reported the crowd approached 10,000).

Still, something about yesterday’s event made it seem like the festival is close to reaching elite status.

Five years ago, the Roots Picnic felt like something for Philly. A gem of a festival — multicultural, multi-genre — the lineups were strong enough to pull out-of-towners down to Penn’s Landing, but the predominant crowd was often local twentysomethings. Yesterday’s picnic felt like a shared destination. The footprint had been expanded, and the larger turf allowed for a 33 percent bump over 2013’s turnout. The crowd was still diverse, but certainly blacker. Typically, the Roots Picnic has more indie on the bill, with a legendary hip hop act co-headlining with the Roots. This year’s lineup seemed crafted for the person who is almost snobbish about their taste in (black) music but still wants to shake their ass — a powerful market. I would love to see the festival continue in that direction.

For the most part, the day was incredible. Willow Smith brought out her father for “Summertime.” Kaytranada was great, as expected. I now have a DMX prayer on my phone that I’ll keep forever.

“A miracle only happens on the platform of a tragedy. Unless there’s some fucked up shit going on, where the fuck is the miracle at?” He sermonized between songs.

He also said: “I been all over the world, by the grace of God. I fucked a lot of bitches.” DMX live is a lot of talking along those lines with classics like “Ruff Ryders Anthem” on deck. Worth the whole price of admission. “I’m saying being onstage in front of people that love you is better than [any] bitch pussy I ever had.”

“I’ve seen my children be born. I’ve bought shit I never thought I could afford. I’ve been reunited with my parents. But this shit right here nigga?!” he said, borrowing a phrase from Katt Williams.

I’m not quite sure how I made it out of Metro Boomin’s DJ set unscathed so I feel blessed and highly favored today. It was an at times alarming sea of bodies, and Metro delivered. I was able to elbow my way through to catch the end of Blood Orange’s set on another stage, which was silky.

The two biggest sets of the night had issues, though.

Future’s set lasted a good 20 minutes before the sound cut out. Audience members responded with the “more music” clap. It came back on briefly, before shorting out again. Future and co. appeared to give up, and bounced. People threw things. I don’t blame them. Future is, without question, one of the most influential rappers of this era. This technical failure was awful and deeply disappointing.

Later, the headlining set, Usher and the Roots performing together, was odd. The music sounded good, and normally for the headlining act, the picnic’s crowd gets all the way live. But last night, the audience was unusually quiet. The Roots didn’t seem to be moving the crowd much in the opening. They arrived, in suits, and got us acquainted with “the Roots Soul Revue.” They melded their own hits with funk and soul classics, a theme they’d carry on when Usher arrived. It was a smart exploration of R&B through decades. It also, based on the crowd’s reaction, didn’t go over as well.

In many ways, the collaboration makes sense. The Roots Crew and Usher share a reverence for soul music. Usher stepped into the shoes of the black male entertainers he’s openly idolized, the Roots played on like the funk bands they’ve studied. The Philadelphia-made single “Good Kisser” embodied the attitude of what was presented — more old than new with irresistible grooves. On stage, the performers actually did something that happens at adult contemporary R&B shows regularly, just nerdier: As a segue, they played “Sun Goddess,” and then let the timeless masterpiece by Ramsey Lewis and Earth Wind and Fire glide in a newer song, “Bad Girl.”

The highlights were singalongs to Usher’s smashes. It still seemed tame.

I’ve seen people get hype to nerdy music at the Roots Picnic. I’ve also seen the crowd have more energy for acts like Naughty by Nature, who haven’t enjoyed Usher’s success. A relevant quirk to the show is that while Usher was often moving around like James Brown, he wasn’t really dancing like Usher. He broke us off with a “Milly Rock,” which was cool and all, but Usher made the “U Remind Me” video, and it’s hard to forget that. Vintage Usher style belonged in the fold, and that old/new dynamic didn’t really get balanced.

I started asking the folks around me why they thought the crowd was reacting as they were. Several weren’t really Roots fans or hadn’t kept up with the band before last night. One thoughtful response: The mellow show they gave would be appropriate for a jazz fest. At jazz festivals, it’s common to hear musicians leisurely travel through the years in a set list. She was enjoying it, but maybe it wasn’t the right for the thousands of people who were waiting to turn up, she said.

The Roots have been tinkering with their formula. With this picnic now being the only Roots-curated festival of the summer (since they’re not headlining the Wawa Welcome America concert), it’ll be interesting to watch how it grows. As Billy Penn first reported, the Roots Picnic is expanding outside of the city, to New York, for the first time this year.

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