To explain the enigma of Janelle Monáe, one must have a broad appreciation of music.
No one genre can properly contain her – not even three. Dismissing all social expectations and demands of what being a woman in the entertainment industry means for her look, her sound or the scope of her projects, Monáe hardly seems the poster girl for the 26-year-old jazz festival. For the younger crowd who believe perhaps that jazz is for “old people”, it’s difficult to picture the diminutive songstress’ more urban numbers having broad appeal.
This is all superficial however, and that simply isn’t Monáe’s style. Her mission is to delve deeper and create her own Wondaland of sonic expression; yours, should you accept it, is to covet the jam of others (so sayeth the Droids).
Although Janelle carved out a name for herself with her unreleased album The Audition in 2003, catching the attention of Outkast’s Big Boi and, via him, Sean Combs, Monáe has remained a delicious secret until 2010’s The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). A concept album sequel to her concept EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), ArchAndroid continues the tale of her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, who is, for simplicity’s sake, the Neo to Monáe’s Matrix. It is a world where prejudice and class take on new coats of paint, but play out painfully the same, with Cindi rising up among them.
Sound complicated? Fear not: when Janelle and her band hit the stage, the back story becomes a special language for fans in the know, but everyone in the house is on their feet and dancing to infectious rhythms.
For Monáe, the stage show is as much of a concept piece as her studio work, each band member dressed in black and white fashions complementing Monáe’s trademark tuxedo. Entering the stage in a black hooded cape, flanked by others in matching garb, the venue explodes quickly into a festive shimmy sway. More than funk, jazz, or swing, Janelle’s band is symphonic and electronic, blending percussion, horns, strings, keyboards and rock guitars into a contradictory blend of contemporary urban melodies and sultry lounge singer accents.
Janelle herself is an expert at commanding her audience’s attention. With the flair of Prince, Stevie Wonder and James Brown slid into a powerhouse with unexpectedly tremendous pipes, she prowls the stage restlessly when not dancing her heart out to wild applause. Beaming smiles of gratitude between tunes demonstrate her respect for the energy exchange between audience and artist, Monáe playing to that by managing to convince the entire crowd to crouch down low with waving of her hands. Whether singing her own material or paying homage to classics via covers, Monáe never misses a beat or note.
This blend of covers (Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back”; Prince tune “Take Me With U”, i.e.) seemed to partially be a means of pulling in the perhaps more skeptical members of the audience, but she truly didn’t need the help. If anyone questioned the choice of Monáe as festival opener, all the answer one needed lay in the sight of twenty-something girls dancing beside fifty-something businessmen who’d come straight from the office, all of them singing along to hit track “Tightrope”.
Perhaps the ultimate highlight of the night was a nearly fifteen minute rendition of “Come Alive (The War of the Roses)”, with its extended jams, dance solos, call and response singing with the crowd and roaring horns that blew the studio cut out of the water. Exhilarating and exuberant, it made for a raucous close to the encore and left the audience wanting more – just as a good concert should do.
Janelle Monáe is truly a visionary and a talent to watch. Make a point of seeing her live; it is an experience that embodies the best of what live music can be.