Monday, May 12, 2014

Janelle Monáe at Brixton Academy, 9th May 2014

Janelle Monáe would be a superstar at any point in human history.  She'd have rocked the rock and roll stages of the 1950s, been a disco queen of the 1970s, probably been worshipped as some kind of minor deity by ancient Egyptians - hell - if she were around in prehistoric times you'd be finding cave paintings of a razor sharp dancer clad in black and white furs with adoring neanderthals gathered around her.  She's the whole package: all-dancing, all-singing, all-stylish, smart as a damn whip and supported by the one of the tightest backing bands about.

Monáe is a woman of many names; Cyndi Mayweather, the Electric Lady, ArchAndroid - yet this isn't a woman playing a series of roles, rather different aspects of personality filtered through prisms of style.  Dressed from top-to-toe in her trademark monochrome she arrives on stage to the cabaret nightmare beat of her Suite IV Electric Overture before launching straight into the insistent stomp beat of Givin Em What They Love - the first ten minutes of her set reaching the heights most big bands save for the finale. Having opened in the stratosphere, Monáe proceeds to shoot for the stars.

For two hours she rattles through hit after hit, an astonishingly strong setlist given that she's only on her second album (and an EP).  Standouts are the incredibly fun Dance Apocalyptic and Tightrope, two songs that it's impossible to resist wiggling your ass too - a smiling audience pulling their own shapes on miniature dancefloors carved out from the crowd.  Occasionally she'll pull out a cover, the best an astonishingly accomplished ABC by the Jackson 5 - Monáe conjuring up the ghost of the dead King of Pop with a tremendous moonwalk across to an swell of amazed applause.

It's all pretty damn great stuff, but the undisputed highlight for me was Cold War. Sobering up for a moment, Monáe stops and decries the kind of horrible world where 200 Nigerian schoolgirls can be sold into slavery and no-one lifts a damn finger.  This is tricky ground for a pop musician to tread on, and I had a tingle of worry that things were going to collapse into mawkish sentimentality.  But as the coolly synthetic 80s electronica of Cold War kicks in, her comments give her gravitas, transforming what's already a virtuoso performance into something with social relevance.  Midway through the song the lyrics devolve into a series of tortured, tuneful howls, a tiny moment that's easily one of the most powerful things I've seen a live singer do of late.

Throughout the show I couldn't help but compare and contrast it to Miley Cyrus' Bangerz show, which I'd seen a few days earlier.  Though both solo female pop artists, the two occupy opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum.  Whereas Miley wraps herself in flashy, intense videos and an ADHD influenced momentum, Monáe strips things down to the bone.  Her backdrop is simply a large blank white sheet that wraps around the stage, lit by various coloured lights, our eyes drawn down to the musicians rather than distracted by any maximalist frippery.

Both gigs were hugely entertaining, their aesthetic differences serving to amplify each artist's strengths.  But if I was absolutely forced to choose between them I'd go with Janelle Monáe - though it's the kind of show that relies on a truly exceptional artist at the centre of it all, one able to shoulder the burden of carrying the whole show on her shoulders. She's more than up to the task - a performance suffused with crazy amounts of confidence, at times while watching her you begin to believe she's capable of anything.

Watching her twist, spin and moonwalk across the stage, every molecule of her body geared to the rhythm, all the while singing in perfect tune made me feel like a complete turnip.  I can 'dance' - anyone can 'dance' - but I this is dancing dammit.  She moves with tireless energy, executing whipcrack precise motions, moving like a black and white flickering zoetrope.  She's a musical Bruce Lee, a complete pop package that, quite frankly, diminishes her musical contemporaries purely by occupying the same industry.

Janelle Monáe obviously has a long career ahead of her, and when she's treading stages in the 2050s she'll still be a hot ticket.  But she'll be echoing the performances she's doing right now.  Seeing her now is like seeing Michael Jackson in his Off the Wall phase, a young and hungry Prince or Elvis before he joined the army.  These are the gigs that people will one day look back on and wish they'd had the chance to attend.  I suspect Monáe's biggest days are still ahead of her, one really big hit single and she'll be deservedly packing out arenas around the world.  

For now though, seeing up close in a packed out Brixton Academy makes me feel privileged.  She is barnstormingly amazing at everything she does; destined to one day take her place in the pantheon of iconic artists.  I can't really imagine anyone not enjoying her gigs - so beg, borrow and steal tickets wherever you can!  

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