Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe :: Brixton Academy, London :: 9-5-14

photo by Jason Williamson

During a conversation about a hundred (ok, 5-10) years ago on BowieNet a friend of mine opined on Prince, exclaiming that he was like a walking Black History Month. He absorbed the best bits of those he had loved, watched and learned from. But while his influences were worn openly, he was completely himself. For the guitar, and the hotness which shouldn’t work but somehow does, he took plenty of Hendrix (though a much more conservative version). For the weirdness and sense of innovation he took some George Clinton. For the dictatorial bandleader, to channel the funk that poured out of him, he took so much from Sly Stone. For the overall king of everything, master of all, he stole liberally from James Brown. For the fuck you attitude it was all Miles Davis. And only recently, I realised, for the slices of sweeter soul he nicked a ton from Shuggie Otis. This is Prince. The parts that make him who he is. The people through which he is filtered. Everyone in music has this, the family tree that created them. But few are as blatant as Prince, and few have been so transparent, until I saw Janelle Monáe perform.

This is no bad thing, and I don’t wish to make it appear so. She does have a bit of an authenticity problem, because stealing without filtering and reimagining is just you doing an impersonation of someone else and I don’t think she needs to do that. This was never demonstrated better than during the two ‘tribute’ sections in the show. The second, during the encore, was a little much, a fairly karaoke-ish version of Let’s Go Crazy. It was perhaps only present as a nod because Prince appears briefly on Givin Em What They Love, from her most recent album, last year’s The Electric Lady, hands down my favourite pop record of 2013 (imagine a lost album located between Off The Wall and Lovesexy, you’re nearly there; in a pop-world of single digital downloads, she made a real no-filler long player). It was fine; it wasn’t bad, but the show just didn’t need it. She had half a dozen of her own songs she hadn’t played yet – like the remarkable Victory, which sadly wasn’t played at all. There’s really no need to do covers when you have the songs, though I understood why she felt the need to pay tribute.

Some time before that, and this one hit the sweet spot with me because he was my first childhood music love, she did a perfectly weighted Jackson Five homage (I Want You Back /ABC). If you shut your eyes, it was like listening to a note-perfect teenage Michael Jackson. No kidding, she nailed the shit out of a pair of songs she has obviously been singing all her life. So when I say that Prince synthesises all of his musical loves yet manages to create something wholly original, I don’t think Janelle Monáe is quite there yet. But, and this is the crucial part, because her songwriting is so fantastic and her songs are so incredibly perfect, none of her reliance on being derivative matters.

My best friend and gig-going companion suggested that her robotic persona is misdirection, as since the start she has adopted, Bowie-like, the persona of a character called Cindi Mayweather. Incidentally, she says that she hasn’t yet talked to Bowie but that he’s in her subconscious and they speak ‘on the same frequencies', which is a little bit nutty, a good sign (she also says there’s a time travel machine in Atlanta that both she and OutKast have been through, and I feel like I could believe her). We mused on whether she does the whole I’m-an-android thing because she’s a bit, how to put it, stiff? She can be a little halting in her performance, without the emotional warmth of other R&B divas, but that this is covered by the sheer amount of hard work she gets through onstage, dancing both brilliantly and a bit awkwardly without pause. I was exhausted just watching her. Or does she do it because she wants to put up a big wall and not convey any of the over-personal I’m-really-your-mate nonsense of the Rihannas and the Mileys? I actually love that about her, how little I know about her personally, in this age of over-sharing. I don’t know what she wears when she’s offstage. I don’t know where she lives or what her house looks like. I don’t know whether she drinks or smokes or takes drugs. I don’t know who she sleeps with or who she hangs out with. I know nothing about her at all, except that, somehow fittingly, as she does have a kind of Dorothy innocence, that she’s from Kansas, aka the Land of Oz (incidentally, someone should remake The Wiz: she could play all of the parts). She talks about being an android, though certainly, Data-like, she seems to be trying to be more human. It’s a clever and unique approach.

So for example, the android Janelle has spent years watching Michael Jackson on repeat and has synthesised and then replicated his moves, and the showman inside lets it out; to the delight of the audience she moonwalks several times. Not just Michael either, there was more than a little of Rhythm Nation Janet present in the room as well. How many members of the audience get all of these references? It doesn’t matter. Maybe the kids swooning over her will look something up on You Tube when they get home, find some old clips and see from whence it all came. I must admit, I couldn’t help but smile at the overwhelming amount of James Brown-isms on show: the boxing-style warm-up man, the announcer, reminiscent of Danny Ray, who stirred JB crowds into a frenzy for over 30 years. Then we had the foot-to-foot shuffle and the mic stand being flipped back and forth, which are now third generation moves. I am always reminded of that precocious MJ clip, recorded in July 1968 (a month before his 10th birthday, he’d already been performing on stage for 4 years), covering JB’s I Got The Feelin, for their Motown audition tape. And now she steals from MJ, who stole from JB, so she’s lauding both and those same moves are passed down across 50 years. And finally there was the announcer coming on to put a velvet robe around her shoulders, which she would then throw off, another JB steal. It was utterly shameless and I loved every second of it.

I have rarely heard such perfectly appointed pop music, conveyed so meticulously, both calculated and heartfelt. And she doesn’t have to do what all of the other female artists seem to think they need to do, or are told to do by fat white guys at their record labels. It’s a little sad that this must be stated as news but she doesn’t use sex to sell her music. Shocking! She has a simple but slick visual theme that doesn’t exploit anyone and she sticks to it to the last: enveloped in a big white backdrop, alongside her tight 7-piece band, who are dressed in black and white and play black or white instruments, and her two black and white stripe-clad backing singers, she wears a uniform of black and white – tight white trousers, white shirt, bolero jacket, black braces and with her hair in a high pompadour (this time, a steal from both JB and Little Richard). There’s no short skirts or cleavage or sliding down a pole happening. There are a few instances of crotch thrusting but it comes off in a non-sexual way, somehow (to be fair, it wasn’t exactly arousing when MJ did it either). She’s not Beyoncé, who with the raising of one eyebrow and the slight movement of one thigh can exude sex all day long, but she does have a Beyoncé-like control over her creative output (without, one hopes, the slightly creepy temperature-controlled digital storage facility recording her every move). She seems to be in complete control, without having to expose her flesh, and has surrounded herself with an intelligent, creative team – from her excellent band to OutKast’s Big Boi as producer to collaborators such as Erykah Badu, Solange and Esperanza Spalding, who are, in no coincidence, also powerful women in control of their careers.

But the songs, it’s all about those songs: Dance Apocalyptic, Q.U.E.E.N., Electric Lady, Come Alive and the big hit from the first record, Tightrope. In truth, the encore of Many Moons dragged a little, turning into a 10-minute band introduction song that descended into her lying on stage before being ‘revived’, Frankenstein-style, by bolts of lightning. It probably looked great from the front row, not least when she finished the show with a spot of crowd surfing, but at the back it caused people to start checking their phones. That minor quibble aside, from the second the gig started with her being carried on stage in a straitjacket, after no less than three men in white delivered and polished her black and white striped microphone stand, this was a devastating, energetic, brilliant pitch-perfect performance of flawless pop music in front of a baying, buzzing crowd. It was a thrill to be there.