Thursday 13 September 2018

Janelle Monáe @ The Roundhouse

Three albums in and Janelle Monáe is still not quite the megastar she deserves to be. Critical darling, sure, but commercially she’s still yet to have a real hit (besides her feature on fun.’s We Are Young) and current album ‘Dirty Computer’ is nowhere to be seen in the charts either in the UK or her native US.

Watch her live, though, and it’s a different story. As a performer she is nothing short of phenomenal, making that lack of commercial success all the more criminal. Not that the hordes of fans at the Roundhouse would care, enraptured as we all were.

There is literally nothing that Monáe can’t do. As a singer her vocal is powerful, impassioned and agile; as a dancer her movement across the stage is every bit the electric lady. Her energy is boundless, offering a vibrant and ecstatic display of showmanship, her personality as vibrant as the colours of her outfits, the staging and the psychedelic screen images that form her backdrop.

And she flits through genres with ease. Songs from ‘Dirty Computer’ of course dominate, but throughout the night she deftly switches from the electro-funk of Crazy, Classic, Life and Screwed, to the sweet pop of Pynk, the futuristic RnB of I Got The Juice, the sultry I Like That and Primetime, before moving to the modern funk Big Band style of Tightrope from her first album. And that voice dips into fierce rap on the likes of Django Jane and Q.U.E.E.N, the audience hanging on every word. Only oddball single Yoga stood out as a tacky pop song, no matter how ironic its lyrics.

Monáe is, in many ways, the lovechild of Prince, Michael and Janet Jackson. She has the funk and sexuality of the former, the vocal inflections, stage-command and charisma of Michael, and the military costumes and precision silhouetted choreography of the latter. A short reference to Purple Rain provided a welcome tribute.

Yet to simply compare her to her influences would be a disservice. Monáe is so much more than that. This is a queer black woman empowering her audience with her music. “Say it loud, I’m dirty and proud,” she has the audience shouting early on, the whole theme of the gig equality and self-love, encouraging us to fight for our rights and fight for love. Her pop music is politically charged, from the cheeky feminist symbolism of Pynk, to the state-of-the-nation song Screwed that has her performing in front of riot images. “Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable,” she demands.

But it’s all delivered with a sense of fun and humour. “Let the vagina have a monologue,” she quips on Django Jane, before emerging in vagina-shaped trousers for Pynk. Later she swigs from a bottle of wine while singing Don’t Judge Me. Her cyborg persona, Cindy Mayweather, may be a political machine, but Monáe herself is a relatable figure beneath the stardom.

And she gives us everything. By the end of her relentless, tireless performance she has literally stripped off before launching herself into the audience for a crowd surf. She spends much of the performance in a military-themed jacket and hat, every bit the ringleader, a queen on her throne, and we are her willing subjects as she preaches her gospel of love. She is, in her own words, “black girl magic” and we are well and truly caught under her spell. Who needs commercial success when you can change the world?