Kitty Empire is dazzled by Janelle Monáe live
Costume by costume, from water pistols to vagina trousers, the fun never stops at Janelle Monáe’s astonishing live show
Not only does the revolutionary pop singer and toast of 2018, Janelle Monáe, stage-dive at the end of the second night of her London residency; she crowdsurfs. Not only does she crowdsurf, held up by scores of adoring hands; she strikes poses on the sea of people, grinning like a Cheshire cat. She cocks up a knee, as though lounging on a beach towel. Then she “swims” backwards, towards the shore of the stage.
It’s the glacé cherry on a knickerbocker glory of a performance, one which sees her invite British comedy star Michaela Coel on stage to dance to I Got the Juice as one of four fan-guests. Another invitee boogies her motorised wheelchair around. Like the leader of a soul revue – James Brown reborn in a more advanced female future – Monáe leads her five-strong band and four dancers through a series of precision-timed stabs of end-game sound, each louder and more emphatic than the last. The song, which could happily go on for ever, is Come Alive (War of the Roses) – a zombie romp from her 2010 Fritz Lang-themed concept album, The ArchAndroid.
Back then, Monáe had an alter ego, the future android Cindi Mayweather; she wore top-to-toe black and white and exposed no flesh, paying tribute to the uniforms worn by service industry operatives like her parents. Covering up in this way was a sublimely radical act on the part of a young African American woman who wanted to make a living singing and dancing, but not be crushed by the sausage machine of R&B starletry; her widescreen art drew from funk, rock, new wave and classical music as well as neo-soul, prefiguring all the eclecticism and cerebral artiness now practised by stars like Solange, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé. Like one of her idols, Lauryn Hill, she sang, she rapped; her “wokeness” came couched in stylish playfulness.
Monáe’s live shows were divinely choreographed revues back then as well; the thing that has substantially changed in the intervening years is her willingness to be more vulnerable, more open and more sexual. Mid-set tonight, Yoga – a 2015 non-album collaboration with Jidenna, a member of Monáe’s Atlanta artistic collective Wondaland – probably marks the stage on the timeline where, point made, Monáe began hip-thrusting in skimpy clothes. Earlier this year, she spoke to Billboard about the themes of her most recent, outstanding album, Dirty Computer. “Regardless of me being an artist and being able to entertain and go around the world, when I come home at night and take off my makeup and my performance uniform, I still am a young, black, queer woman from America who grew up with workingclass parents.”
By the end of tonight’s set, this new, flesh-and-blood Monáe is peeling off successive layers of magnificent costume-armour: a cartoon Napoleonic greatcoat with bleeding, glittery red epaulettes, boots, two-tone Lycra catsuit, quasi-military, quasi-African cap. Her dancers lose their “Highly Melanated” crop tops – a lyric from Monáe’s most powerful rapped outing, Django Jane – until they are all down to a black leotard. There have been inspirational speeches about love and difference and the importance of good mental health. Monáe has danced the standing crowd down to a crouch for Tightrope, her breakthrough tune of 2010, and then gee’d them all back up again to a leaping mass. “You can’t get too high!” she sings. “You can’t get too low!”
It works as a dance routine; it works as wisdom too: for all Monáe’s playful visuals, spectacular costumes, ample Prince and Michael Jackson references, the substance underlying all these visual goodies is deeply nourishing. Just one example: Screwed is a nagging pop song about the political upheavals of 2016 onwards (“The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal”), an analysis of sexual power relations worthy of a women’s studies syllabus and, you know, just a celebration of getting it on. The chorus is matter-of-fact: “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down.” At the end, the dancers spray everyone with water pistols.
Around the time of the April release of Dirty Computer – an album dedicated to anyone who felt marginalised, who had been told their software was running incorrectly – Monáe voiced some anxieties about whether she – Janelle Monáe Robinson, from Kansas – would be as interesting a sell as Cindi Mayweather was to ArchAndroid obsessives. As recently as last week, Monáe bandied about a bit of her old Mayweather sci-fi futurism on Twitter, in reaction to the US Open final in which Serena Williams clashed with the umpire. “Hello,” she said, in a video message, flickering like a hologram, “and here’s your daily reminder from the future: don’t fuck with me.”
Those anxieties – that Monáe might be, y’know, dull compared to a cyborg alter ego – are pretty much dead in the water, as her arsenal of ideas and clarion calls unfolds, song by song, costume by costume, feat of timing after feat of timing. The pregnant pause at the false ending of Django Jane, where Monáe raps “let the vagina have a monologue”,
For all Monáe’s playful visuals, the substance underlying all these visual goodies is deeply nourishing
is exquisite. The section devoted to Electric Lady – Monáe’s perfectly inspirational album of 2013 – feels a tad like a lull, but only because the selections from Dirty Computer and The ArchAndroid are so strong.
And of course, there are some glorious knickerbockers, and all they represent. Back in April, Monáe unveiled the video for Pynk. A song about everyone’s intimate regions, the folds of the brain and girl-positive oral sex, its key visual motifs were the labial leggings worn by Monáe and her dancers.
They look as outrageous in the flesh tonight as they do in the video, which is played back on three giant screens. Raunchy and funny by turns, Monáe and her dancers are flanked by two female members of the band playing big white keytars. Really, the merchandise stand is the only disappointment tonight. Why are there T-shirts and baseball caps on sale when there could be orgasmic organza workout-wear?
An ‘arsenal of ideas and clarion calls’: Janelle Monáe at the Roundhouse. Photograph by Neil Lupin/ Redferns