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Janelle Monae’s Android Asylum Funk In The Era Of R&B Hegemony

[Video from Janelle Monae’s recent performance on “Later…with Jools Holland.” Review from her October 22 performance in Minneapolis]

When you see a Janelle Monae show, you are seeing a production. A visual whole. The level of detail in the live performance is the same level given to her records. The stage is entirely black and white. The backup band, some of whom are in lab coats, could be scientists or keepers of the asylum or both. The backup singers, clad in 1960s-style identical wigs and dresses, are a voluptuous contrast to the androgyny of Monae.

The performance – at least the first half – tracks her most recent release, “Electric Lady.” Monae has described the record as a “prequel” to her previous record, “The ArchAndroid,” and it keeps the same science fiction storyline – Monae as messianic android – as before. There’s no telling whether the storyline is a conceit or a true belief, precious or heartfelt. It doesn’t matter one bit either way, because the music is so whole, so cohesive, so genre-clashing, so unlike anything anyone else is doing, that if what it takes for her to make that music is a wonderland that exists only in her head, so be it.

Live, Monae’s visual signposts aren’t from modern R&B at all. Instead, think Ike and Tina Turner circa 1966.


This is the sweat-drenched soul shouters of the mid-1960s. This is Sly and the Family Stone. This is the Jackson 5 when they were radio superstars and no one had yet started to carve up pop into so many splintered pieces. She makes that connection explicit with a cover of “I Want You Back” and reminds you that is one of the all-time great pop songs, even if you do hear it too often on the oldies channel. This is James Brown, complete with one of the sidemen coming over to put the cape across her shoulders. THE CAPE! And of course, of course, this is Prince.

Musically, you can draw a straight line from “Let’s Go Crazy” to “Dance Apocalyptic,” and Monae does just that, with the latter coming early on in the show and the former showing up in the encore. And oh, does it take balls to sing “Let’s Go Crazy” with The Purple One himself in the audience. Most of the crowd, yr humble correspondent included, close to broke our necks craning to see him in the balcony, silently praying please please please let him come up onstage. He didn’t, but you know what? She didn’t need him, no disrespect to Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson. She carried that show straight up to the sky.

Monae is an insanely confident performer for a 27-year-old. She’s a natural bandleader, and you can see the musicians and the backup singers following her lead, nimbly shifting gears when she decides to do a 10-minute call-and-response with the audience. There’s no break in the action, no moment when she’s deciding what to do next or conferring with the band, but in spite of all that it doesn’t feel plastic or over-rehearsed.

Like most of her contemporaries, Monae knows how to break it down and do a full on modern R&B slow jam, as she does in the encore with “Prime Time,” her languid burner of a duet with Miguel. But she’s so, so much more than that. At a time when much of the music made by young black women gets routed into big-voiced tear-stained super-produced ballads, she’s a mod, a rocker, a funkster, a trickster. This is entirely deliberate:

“Musically I wanted to create an album that was rooted in R&B but make sure I was capturing the diversity in R&B music,” she explained. “I was inspired by Bo Diddley, who inspired the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis (Presley). This was the leader, the pioneer of R&B. (The track) ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ was very much a response to being inspired by him.”

Honestly, we only get a few performers like this in each generation, those people that start so young and are talented and bold and omnivorous enough to swallow genres whole: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince. Monae takes a lot of flack for being too much of a perfectionist, too much in control, but that implies a coldness that simply isn’t there. Instead, she exudes an ecstasy that is almost palpable. She ends the show diving into the audience, carried atop the crowd in sheer escapist joy.

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