 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

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Janelle Monáe Round­house, London NW1

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

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