Presumably due to Wayne-related reshuffling, the Festival Pier South Stage was no longer in sync with the North one, so I didn’t quite get to find out what Black Thought and J. Period’s “live mixtape” was while waiting 90 minutes for 21 Savage to show. Eventually the fest finally got hip to broadcasting other stages on the video screens, so I did get to catch Fat Joe perfoming hits like “Make It Rain” and “All the Way Up” in a brightly colorful sweater and “Lean Back” producer Scott Storch on keys, as well as a Black Thought add-on verse that went “Hunter S. Thompson / Doing it gonzo” at one point.
The sadistic 21 Savage finally emerged in shades and all white for the most purely and claustrophobically trap set of the day — Jeezy was Mr. Rogers by comparison. No one else at this otherwise feel-good fest stood out with such provocations as “I put a hundred on your head” and “Pull up at your mama house / And put some rounds in it” on nasty, unflinching bangers like “Red Opps,” and the man’s youthful energy kept the tone more black-comic punk than rotely cynical. It helped that his bass levels punched us in the gut.
Meanwhile on the North stage, the Yachty-coiffed Thundercat wailed away on a six-string bass with various phasing effects, trying to keep pace with his fidget spinner of a drummer. He sings too, though you wonder why he bothers. His three-piece fusion combo at times played like a warped Steve Wonder LP, as the virtuoso swayed and sang while his fretting digits never settled for stillness. He's equally blessed and cursed with the gift of his compositions’ constant movement but never settled into much of a song or even a groove. This Möbius strip act worked better witnessing his technique firsthand, though, than sitting at home listening to 2017’s Drunk. Someone ought to hook him up with Arto Lindsay, a real songwriter who navigates chaos.
The ever-hoarse Jeezy earned his rep as the TED-talk trapper, in blinding white tee and bandanna moving the crowd off of one slogan to the next: “Standing Ovation,” “Go Getta,” “Soul Survivor.” True to his schtick, he was adept as his own hypeman, rallying his people with the silver medal “Anyone here went to a black college? Then you’ve been fucking with the Snowman since Day One” and the gold prize-winner, “Ladies, if your pussy tastes good, make some motherfucking noise.”
But, especially with time-slot rival Weezy M.I.A., the weight of this festival was on Solange Knowles, Billboard Top 200 Albums chart-topper and winner of multiple 2017 Album of the Year honors whom the entire hill had crowded the South Stage to witness. One mom in front of me had a one-year-old on her shoulders, as if she’d been specifically brought along to watch history in motion. Another patron held aloft the black, blue and yellow Bahamian flag. The explosion-haired singer arrived to the fanfare of her New Orleans horn players, flanked by two singer-dancers that spent much of the performance alternately standing completely still and synchronized with her every move. They performed the first three songs on A Seat at the Table just as they appear on the record, albeit with a netting-dressed Solange doing quick bows-cum-head-tosses in time to each horn blat of the intro.
Penn’s Landing was alternately wild and hushed when the rimshots of “Cranes in the Sky” popped through the crowd noise, and the singer broke up the reverential tone at just the right time, with the “Way You Make Me Feel” shuffle of 2012’s “Some Things Never Seem to F---ing Work” freeing her up to jump around her slight but impactful discography. She did “Mad” without Lil Wayne after all, funked her way through the uptempo “Locked in Closets,” and made the jump-on-it refrains of “Junie” signify in real time. Her hushed closer, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” built to a well-choreographed climax, though the most iconic moment of the set was the deeply outreaching “FUBU,” and its ominous, protective horn honks. Hearing a predominantly black and female crowd chant “The shit is for us” was just a profoundly moving and strong moment in a year when not nearly enough Americans stand with them.
Somehow, perhaps because her catalog is simply so quiet, even Solange couldn’t compete with the extravaganza promised and fulfilled by the headliners in their tenth year as festival hosts. Billed as Pharrell and the Roots, the aging-averse producer with the lovably strained falsetto led his backup geniuses through over an hour of hits he made for others, as well as a few returned favors for himself. Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself to Dance” and Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines” kicked things off unapologetically, before dipping back for N.E.R.D.’s sweet 2002 deep cut “Run to the Sun” and then a karaoke session like no other.
First, Pharrell sang Clipse’s “Young Boy” and “What Happened to That Boy” with the band backing up every horn skronk and Birdman trill, before Kim-Jong-of-the-crack-song Pusha T himself appeared for his own mini-hits set of “Mr. Me Too” and “Grindin’,” plus a sizzling, Snoop-free “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” before N.O.R.E. came out for a merciless “Superthug” and “Nothin’,” and made it clear this was some kind of coronation for the Neptune-turned-superstar, gushing to his buddy: “You’re the best producer of all time, I can't believe that I fell onto you. I love you, your wife, your triplets, you've got super sperm.”
That led to N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star” and “Provider,” the latter fitted with a little solo time for the saxophonist, and a warp-speed medley of as many famous Pharrell jawns these expert improvisers could think of: “Hot in Herre,” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” a “Pass the Courvoisier” that got everyone jumping, a “LapDance” that sent a mic-less Tyler, the Creator bounding onto the stage for dancing and goofy mugging, and a “She Wants to Move” that devolved into Pharrell on a Latin percussion kit doing drum battle with Questlove. A quick spin through smashes you nearly forgot about, by Gwen Stefani, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Justin Timberlake became a four-sideman drum-machine duel before a triumphant, nearly climactic “Get Lucky.”
But Pharrell still had a trick up his sleeve, introducing the long-lost ‘90s R&B trio SWV to perform two songs, including “Right Here,” on which a 23-year-old Pharrell made his vocal industry debut by rap-spelling out the group’s name, a role he reprised last night with glee. Then he introduced a child named Reef to clap onstage during the actual climax, “Happy,” and not a festival attendee by then felt like a room with a roof.