By mel d cole 29
Photo by Mel D. Cole for Okayplayer

The Roots Close Out Central Park Summer Stage w/ Common, Talib Kweli, Bilal & Salt-N-Pepa

Photos by Mel D. Cole for Okayplayer and Villageslum

With October wrapping its chilly fingers around the Eastern Seaboard, Central Park SummerStage went out with one last blaze of glory Thursday night, as thousands poured through the gates of the park's Rumsey playfield for a free hip-hop show presented by Capital One as a special gift to their cardholders. What had brought them there was one of the most beautiful phrases in all of music: music from The Roots with no money down!

Bolstered by a host of special guests, The Roots crew performed an absolutely monumental show to close out the city’s SummerStage series, which consistently brings the finest acts in the world to perform atop the most world’s most valuable undeveloped real estate. By the end of the night, Central Park was set ablaze with crackling snares, relentless rhymes and dazzling solos. But, as with all things, it’s best we proceed from the beginning.

Fans were welcomed by Talib Kweli, who manned a pair of DJ decks with aplomb, keenly selecting and beat-matching hip-hop and soul material of the present-day, past-day and way-way-back variety. The MC legend more than earned his beat selector wings; the next time Kweli spins near you, you owe it to your ears to be in the room.

What followed was, for many, a gorgeous surprise. Neo-soul legend Marsha Ambrosius hit the Central Park stage backed by a live trio and proceeded to glide through a set of jazz-inflected soul, toying with the crowd’s expectations before snapping them into pieces. “I don’t know if you assume that I came out here being all British that I didn’t turn up” she mused. Let the record show: Ms. Ambrosius was way, way up. Her set climaxed with the Floetry classic "Say Yes," a gooey-smooth groove over which she positively soared, going off-script and lobbing solo lines like a like a half-jazz trumpeter, half-shred guitarist. An entire city was put on notice.

As Ambrosius thanked the crowd with sweet tones and exited via stage right, her band rode out their dense "Say Yes" groove for a few extra minutes, treating them to a little reward for nailing such a colorful and high-profile gig. But as they followed her to the green room and the temperature dipped just a bit more, all heads focused on one thing: the fast-approaching Legendary.

Playing like their dinners had been served with a side of gunpowder, The Roots immediately commanded the stage from beat one, opening with "Table of Contents (Part 1 & 2" before sliding into covers of both War's "Me and Baby Brother" and Bobby Byrd's classic break "I Know You Got Soul." The early(ish) cuts continued with "Respond/React"; "Proceed" and "What They Do" all pouring out of the 11-piece ensemble like they were playing for way, way more than $Free.99. Perhaps to be expected, Talib Kweli joined The Roots on stage during "Act Too (Love of My Life)," freestyling to the crowd's delight, until...

Common. The Chicago vet was on familiar ground as he stepped out to rock his verse on "Act Too," driving the crowd into an early frenzy that stemmed from the joy of seeing your heroes having a ball (watch below via AFH). Minutes later Cee Lo Green took the stage to perform another kind of Green--"Love and Happiness" off of Al Green's modern soul classic Lay it Down. We were taken even higher.

The night, however, belonged to Bilal, who stepped out to perform both "Back to Love" and "The OtherSide," showing absolutely no signs of fatigue or fear despite the fact that he was robbed, members of his team held at gunpoint, barely two days prior. As "OtherSide" sped forward, the man ad-libbed yowls like hot gravel scattered over cast iron before Captain Kirk Douglas stepped up to solo, cutting the night's chill like a dagger. "I want black people to know that black lives matter!" Bilal called out. "Call the hood cats to know that black lives matter!" He screamed for the pimps, hustlers, dealers and police to wake up--to realize that young black men and women are getting killed before they're able to get over. Central Park never felt so nationally necessary as it did last night, and we've never needed Bilal more than now.

And there was one more surprise to be had. The Roots, after driving hard through "The Seed 2.0" and veering into a "Jump on It" interlude, welcomed none other than rap pioneers Salt-N-Pepa to the stage. The crowd lost their damn minds, and rightly so, as the legendary duo blasted through "Push It," propelled by the thwack of Questlove's snare. Things closed up on a triumphant note, with a birthday cake being presented to both Black Thought and Talib Kweli, who shared an October 3rd birthday and were all too happy to celebrate it, belated-like.

And with that, the house lights went up. Exit Roots. Enter autumn. Hip-hop forever.

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