I realize Cultural Minefield is coming dangerously close to becoming the unofficial Janelle Monáe Fan Blog, but I had the opportunity to see her perform live at Baltimore's Pier Six Pavilion last week and feel compelled to report on the experience.
Monáe was the opening act for N.E.R.D. and Erykah Badu and, given the tepid response she and her bandmates received as they entered the stage in their signature hooded robes, it was obvious few knew who she was. As the indistinguishable figures swayed to The ArchAndroid's opening overture, backs turned to the audience, the crowd reacted with a mixture of curiosity and what the fuck is going on here?
Monáe disrobed on cue, dramatically revealing her tuxedoed self to the audience, and launched into the trio of "Dance or Die," "Faster," and "Locked Inside," without a pause between the songs. Despite being a neophyte, Janelle Monáe the Performer is strikingly similar to Janelle Monáe the Recording Artist: warm, exuberant, and surprisingly comfortable in her own skin. As Monáe glided across the stage, her band danced to the beat, and two black-spandex-clad women with comically-oversized white gloves flanked the audience, goading us to participate in the joyous noise emanating from the speakers. It was like a gospel show imagined by Walt Disney. The crowd began to take notice.
Monáe only performed one track off her Metropolis EP, the gorgeous ballad "Smile." For as much as it showcased her upper-register chops, it couldn't match the frenetic energy of the first three songs. Monáe righted the situation with her two closing numbers. "Cold War," performed with video of Muhammad Ali sparring in the background, was the first time that night I felt the same giddy surge of excitement I had the first time I heard The ArchAndroid. It was what I had been waiting for. The crowd responded in kind.
I hoped for left turn at some point, but Monáe ended the set with the slinky funk of her new single, "Tightrope." It was a great performance, but one that hewed closely to her recent television appearances, right down to the James Brown ending.
Had this been a headlining set, I suspect Monáe would have emphasized her knack for genre-bending. Instead, she (smartly) played to the crowd, who, for the most part, were won over. I was disappointed, though it wasn't her fault. I wanted a feast, but all Monáe could possibly offer in 35 minutes was an amuse-bouche. Delicious, yes. But I still left feeling hungry.
"Suite II Overture"
"Dance or Die"