There are artists who simply reflect the zeitgeist; shiny and designed for short bursts of enjoyment. Then there are the megastars-pioneering juggernauts who bring a cavalcade of tricks, hits and talent but are utterly unattainable or personable. Then there is Janelle Monae. Completely relatable and there, with spunk, wit and energy that can make even Beyonce look tired.
Janelle Monae is not your ordinary artist (and she is an artist in the purest sense of the word). Her run of albums - 2010’s The Archandroid, 2013’s The Electric Lady and this year’s Dirty Computer is unparalleled, this past decade, in ambition or vision. Within the genre of R&B (although it is impossible to limit her music to just this), it is hard to imagine anyone else creating concept albums regarding a dystopian world populated by androids, on the brink of armageddon, with such a veracity and zeal. Try to define her by her race, gender or sexuality and she will subvert those conventions yet also wear them proudly. She is boundary pushing and refuses to adhere to formula. Her music is fundamentally inclusive and that appears to be the main message of tonight’s show, saluting “Happy Pride Forever” (many a rainbow flag can be seen in the diverse crowd) and those who fight for “LGBT, womens, black folks, poor folks, disabled folks rights”.
Opening with the first half of ‘Dirty Computer’, dressed with four incredible backing dancers in afrocentric military theme regalia, she slinks from the opening statement of intent ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ to the chaotic, sexy disco of ‘Take A Byte’ and ‘Screwed’. Whereas with her first two albums, with the android dystopia reflecting modern fears of technology and being illusionary to the current state of the world, Monae is much more upfront regarding her take on current affairs (although her message is, as she often states during the gig, of love and tolerance) in that she is embracing all the madness and having fun, with the backing singers squirting the crowd with water guns during ‘Screwed’ with an added interpolation of the call-and-response chant of James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!’, the return of those iconic vagina trousers for a rapturous ‘PYNK’, as well as her performance from a throne for Black Girl Magic anthem ‘Django Jane’.
Monae is a magnetic performer, a true triple threat who shows the influence of those who went before her yet also pushes it all forward. She has the sexual magnitude, and swagger, of Prince (who receives a tribute in the beautiful segue from the Prince inspired track ‘Primetime’, to those spine tingling cries of anguish at the end of ‘Purple Rain’, and ‘Make Me Feel' is ‘Dirty Mind’ Prince personified) , the authority and genre eclecticism of Janet Jackson, and those moves and crotch grabbing? Straight up Michael. She is a great dancer, injecting so much extra life into familiar tracks ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Yoga’. Vocally, she is the best she has ever been with ‘Primetime’ sounding better than the original recording (with more urgency and intensity) and the goosebump raising, jazzy, soulful adlibs of encore ‘Come Alive’. She gives the audience love, gratitude and next level energy which they reciprocate in spades until she has them all in the palm of her hand. Her dazzling showmanship literally means the whole audience lays down on the floor at one point under Monae’s order. It is during this encore that Monae seems to give herself to complete joyful abandonment, crowd surfing and removing all the heavy military clothes for a simple black t-shirt and tights combination underneath.
Monae’s music speaks to all those who exist on the fringe of normal, acceptable society. She stresses the importance of taking care of one’s mental health in order to change the world for the better. And supposed ‘flaws’ are celebrated, such as in the self-love anthem ‘I Like That’. She encourages the audience to scream at one point during this song and the feeling of liberation and freedom in the room is potent and moving. The dance section of confidence-inducing tune ‘I Got the Juice’ features an appearance from E4’s Chewing Gum star Michaela Coel (Monae tells her how much she loves her work) who is in the audience and two other young black girls whose dancing sends the audience into a joyous frenzy.
By embracing what makes her unique and interesting, and her position in a world of chaos, she has created an empowering show of self acceptance, inclusivity and love. The Roundhouse feels too small for such a powerhouse show, and artist, and it should only be a matter of when, not if, she will be playing the bigger venues she deserved. Black Girl Magic, don’t doubt it.