Erykah Badu Brings Soul to 8th Annual Roots Picnic: Concert Review

Jake Katznelson

The idea of "soul music" has become a shell of its former self, bringing to mind only the legacies of aging greats and their halfhearted pop progeny. At Saturday's (May 30) eighth annual Roots Picnic, however, audience members received an almost therapeutic refresher on what soul music can be in 2015: something that has history, meaning and, well, roots -- yet still feels alive instead of like a museum piece.

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The Roots have been guardians of soul music (in a sense) for the entirety of their 20-year-plus long career, consistently releasing earnest, meaningful albums (and promoting those of other artists) that celebrate the history of hip-hop and R&B. Along with Erykah Badu, who shared the stage with the group Saturday, they were integral members of what was probably this century's most important soul movement: the collective the Soulquarians.

Their set followed a series by noted stylists DJ Mustard, A$AP Rocky, and The Weeknd, serving as something of a salve for the audiences trap-beleagured and 808-worn ears. Yes, DJ Mustard spun the most lit set of 2015 (recipe: play the first 30 seconds of every rap hit from the past year and a half; bonus points if you produced about half of them). Yes, A$AP Rocky blessed the crowd with the first live performances of new music from At.Long.Last.A$AP in front of (very subtle) hazy purple visuals, lamenting the party-ready crowd's non-response to his spaced-out jams. Yes, The Weeknd had just about everyone in the crowd proffering (usually high-pitched) screams and throwing up XOs as he lustily flicked his tongue between sultry slow jams.

But as soon as The Roots took the stage and settled into one of their trademark grooves, the audience's mood immediately softened. "What's your passion?" Black Thought queried, running through a number of possibilities. "Ours is excellence," he said before introducing one of the most excellent singers and songwriters around, Ms. Erykah Badu.

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Badu entered regal as ever in white robes, a gaze-concealing visor, and wheeled shoes that allowed her to literally glide across the stage.  Halfway through "Window Seat," her first song, the visor came off and the Erykah the audience had come for stood before them, a spiritual guide as much as an artist. A flawless vocalist, it's Badu's lyrics that have deified her to fans: soul-baring but almost never trite, and rendered all the more real by her knowing, worldly delivery. "That's my go-to break-up song!" a fan said of "On & On" as she walked out of the festival.

The performance becomes communion, as shown by one of her biggest hits, the live version of "Tyrone" (which she hinted at during the set with a "Sisters how y'all feel?"). It's good that Badu encourages audience participation, because trying to quiet them would have been futile: everyone knew every last word, and sang them as though they were in a karaoke bar and not a festival crowd. The magic of Erykah, though, is that somehow when she sings, we can all sing. ?

The set's musical highlight was undoubtedly the 15+ minute long version of Badu's hit "Love Of My Life (Hip-Hop)." With Black Thought standing in for Common, the collective turned the hip-hop ode into a fully fleshed-out tribute to the genre. The Roots tapped into their skills as late-night's musical chameleons to bring to life interludes from all phases of hip-hop's history, from the Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M." to Kanye West's "Gold Digger." YG ("My N----"), Freeway ("Roc the Mic") and the LOX ("It’s All About the Benjamins” and “Money, Power & Respect").

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From an emotional standpoint, it was probably Badu's flawless rendition of the entirety of Mama's Gun's "Green Eyes" that stirred the crowd the most. It was one of the Soulquarians' greatest songs, performed exactly as it was intended to be. Yet even as she reached the song's evocative conclusion ("I know our love will never be the same/But I can't stand the growing pains"), Badu proved that soul doesn't have to mean serious. "That's what she said," she added as an aside, chuckling to herself.

- The 8th Annual Roots Picnic Album Review