Erykah Badu has executed nearly 100 percent of her New York performances over the last two years while wearing some form of headgear. Her Rock The Bells set kept that ratio near-perfect, as the “queen of our culture,” as Peter Rosenberg introduced her, walked regal steps with regal feet encased in gold platform boots. The rest of her outfit was just as zany, but she made it work—think park ranger (hat) meets Mormon (long sleeve, button-up shirt) jockey (jodhpur-style pants) meets shaman (feathers that she left in her shirt pocket). Badu has a posture that is proud and deliberate, as if she is always carrying an imaginary jug of water on top of her head, and stood with her computer to her right and some kind of MPC to her left. A thermos of tea was also on the table.
Badu’s background in theater has made her aware of what a lot of artists are not, which is the importance of theatrics. She’s a performer, aware of her band, herself and the audience, and she realizes that a good show means more than just playing the recorded material live. The Dallas goddess was billed to perform Baduizm in its entirety, but (according to a few accounts) there’s no really telling her what to do. She opened with “The Healer” instead, which is from her most recent album, and from there performed cuts from the LP she was required to draw from, playing with it by way of tempo, harmony and turning stuff into medleys.
Though the lineup consisted of nearly all dudes, there were two women who were near-headlining the main stage. E’s regal soul/R&B/I Am A Goddess And Don’t Y’all All Know It act overlapped with Mobb Deep over on the 36 Chambers Stage. Mobb Deep’s live take on hip-hop is solid but built on the standard foundations of rap: call and response, gun shots, etc.
Lauryn Hill was late, but she finally arrived looking less like a crazy cat lady (a la last year’s RTB performance) and more just like a semi-nervous performer. We’re paraphrasing here, but she basically prefaced her set with the fact that she would be doing her songs at a pretty fast pace, because her “heart beats fast,” and she needed to keep up with that. Her songs consequently were faster and rougher live than on The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, perhaps staying truer to where she is now, rather than trying to emulate the way she felt and the person she was when she wrote them. To give you a sense of time passed, Hill’s oldest son, Zion (the subject of “To Zion”), is now 14 years old.
Hill took a frenetic energy to her songs, at times gesturing aggressively toward her band. Some may have labelled her a bit unhinged, but she still demands perfection for her craft. When former Fugees member Pras Michel joined her for an impromptu onstage reunion (two outta three ain’t bad), her voice lifted. “They just turn up!” she exclaimed. “That’s how the Fugees do!”
Meanwhile, the RZA was giving some sort of hip-hop lecture to the crowd (something about a “turkey sandwich”) as a weird prelude to Ghostface and Raekwon‘s big entrance. MC Supernatural also took advantage of the wait time to amuse/entertain with a hip-hop-meets-musical theater act, impersonating other MCs and freestyling rhymes according to items handed to him by the audience. When Ghost and Rae came on, we were happily surprised by their energy and promptness to stage—and that the latter was wearing a Cookie Monster T-shirt. They chomped around until Ghost stopped everything to tinker with the sound. And then the lights. Something about a sandwich came up again.
Nas had already started by the time Ghost and Rae finished up. A stream of people moved across the open space to the main stage, where the Queensbridge MC had begun and was soon joined by OG heavyweights like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and AZ. The idea of having a festival of thousands on an island is ideal in theory, but at the end of the night it can become a clusterfuck, and the reason we bring that up right now is to justify having to leave Nas’ set early. But Nas’ beats chased after us, chugging alongside the ferry in the dark.