Janelle Monae Shines as the Electric Lady, but is the Shtick Losing Wattage?: Concert Review
The R&B darling takes her latest album to Los Angeles, delivering a barrage of charged tracks as her alter ego inches out of the spotlight.
Anyone who hadn't their fill of Halloween festivities come Saturday night likely exorcized lingering seasonal demons with Janelle Monae at her sold-out show at Club Nokia. The singer's current Electric Lady tour, in support of her sophomore LP of the same name, lends itself to slightly spooky affair -- evident by Monae arriving on stage, bound in a straightjacket, to the frantic opening strings of instrumental intro "Suite IV Electric Overture."
Similarities to Bernard Herrmann's iconic Psycho score are likely intentional. Monae has strived for sinister undertones since her 2007 debut, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). The tantalizingly abrupt EP only included three proper tracks but introduced critics and a passionate fanbase to alter ego Cindi Mayweather, the circa 2719 android on the lam for behavior unbecoming of her servant caste and her soulful beats.
The casual listener might not be aware of this revolutionary narrative, now spanning five of seven planned installments in a concept series, and it's not anything the singer seems to push during her galvanic, hour-and-a-half set. She's front-loaded the show with dance-inducing tracks "Q.U.E.E.N.," "Sincerely, Jane," "Electric Lady," "Dance Apocalyptic" and the fortuitous "Givin Em What They Love." Monae does seem to play to her audience more than her contemporaries. There's no noticeable self-indulgence in her delivery or her well-honed aesthetic -- that distinctive pompadour, which manages to remain coifed into submission despite the fact that its owner ricochets unrelentingly from the brass to the string sections. At times she channels the spinning top from Inception, making her audience question the plausibility of the events unfolding on stage.
That stage, a stark canvas populated by black-and-white-clad musicians and backup singers, did most of the legwork in echoing the dystopian through-line of Monae's stylized catalog. (Had Andy Warhol been charged with staging a musical number in A Clockwork Orange, it would not have been far off.) There wasn't even a mention of heroin Cindi until just before the encore, after Monae delivered a well-received and perhaps too-spot-on rendition of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" -- a cover she would be wise to retire.
Monae heralded the end of the night with "Cold War," perhaps the singer's best effort to-date in reconciling dueling personas of art-house concept queen and commercial darling. "If you're alone tonight, then I'm singing to you," she said, one of the notably scarce moments of dialogue. Cliche, sure, but apropos of the undeniable thrall Monae can have over anyone paying even a little attention. It's something she and her two-woman chorus achieved again a few moments later, whispering the "Happy Birthday" refrain to "Tightrope."
Much like the album, the Electric Lady tour prompts a fond frustration. Monae's shtick -- which, regrettably, is the most fitting label for her routine -- is holding her back a little at this point. You certainly can't fault her for it, as she seems more aware than anyone, and the moments when she rises above it are wildly satisfying. That sentiment lingered for her the entirety of her three-song encore, starting with current single "PrimeTime." The track loses little in the absence of Miguel, with Monae pulling double duty on the duet.
The Electric Lady will likely be deemed transitional period for Monae in a future much closer than Cindi Mayweather's, but it is still nothing but a treat to witness. The 27-year-old seems to be defining herself as an artist in real-time, and if the evolution is anything, it's entertaining.
Suite IV Electric Overture
Mushrooms & Roses
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Let's Go Crazy (Prince and the Revolution cover)
Come Alive (The War of the Roses)