The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Three Songs No Flash

Electrifying Lady: Janelle Monáe At The Roundhouse
Simon Price , September 12th, 2018 12:53

The Kansas-born Q.U.E.E.N. shows London she's the torch-bearer for a dying tradition of life-changing pop, says Simon Price

Live photograph via Janelle Monáe's instagram

What died in here?

Apart from, oh you know, the last vestiges of hope for the future of the planet, killed by a thousand cuts, some deeper than others. And apart from, oh you know, the two greatest artists of the pop age, Prince and David Bowie.

How about the very idea of the 'great artist' itself? Hasn't that gone for good? Sure, there will always be radio-friendly unit-shifters: Drakes and Sheerans racking up record-busting stats while showing zero ambition to advance the artform. At the other end of the spectrum, there will always be great avant-garde music, though quantities may vary according to era. But even your underground darlings are impotent now. No-one has their eyes on the prize.

Nobody has the desire to step up into that all-important middle ground, that best-of-both sweet spot where the artist is known, has 'reach', but also has the desire and wherewithal to push things forward, to get inside the heads of their audience and twist young minds into new shapes. That critical-mass moment where a pop star looms large enough in the imagination to become a Dalinian dream figure, the simple fact of their existence richly replete with meaning and symbolism even when they aren't doing anything, their persona becoming a prism through which everything else is viewed.

White pop, in recent years, has offered little since Gaga, and even she was a throwback outlier. (Lorde, maybe, at a stretch?) Black America has offered a trickle of diffident mumble rappers and PBR&B auteurs, mumble rap itself being literally a retreat from communication.

Who has the big swinging cojones to step up? Who out there still sees pop as a transformative force with the potential to change people's worlds (and maybe, just maybe, THE world)? Who out there knows that pop itself is an instrument, and wants to grab hold and play it like a virtuoso? Ladies and gentlemen, Janelle Monáe.

In 2018, Monáe is that Rhodium-rare thing: a pop singer who branches out into other areas of popular culture - acting in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, for example, or signing up as a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics – as an extension of their artistic persona, and not because some venal shark-eyed fuck in her management company has decided it will boost her profile in a way that can somehow be directly or indirectly monetised. In this respect she's more reminiscent of a Bowie than of any of her peers. And she made it this far through sheer force of will: Monáe's status is entirely self-made and self-directed.

To the lazy eye and ear, Janelle Monáe Robinson may have appeared just another Nu Soul starlet when she emerged in 2007. Born in 1985 into a working class family – her mother, as she'd later mention on 'Django Jane', cleaned hotels and her father drove trucks - she'd grown up in Kansas City, left to study drama in New York, then moved to Atlanta where she fell into Outkast's orbit, guesting on their Idlewild album, and launched her own Wondaland Artists Society collective.

Her first EP, 2003's limited-release The Audition, already hinted at her future obsessions (with tracks like 'Metropolis' and 'Cindi'), but it was on 2007's The ArchAndroid: Suite I (The Chase) that those ideas became fleshed out. Her first full-length album in 2010, also called The Archandroid, was an astonishing debut, a genre-melting and outrageously assured announcement of Monáe's arrival. At the time, I called it “a brain-boggling blend of the utopian Egyptology of Earth, Wind & Fire, the afrofuturism of Sun Ra and the dystopianism of Fritz Lang's Metropolis”. Built around the barely-veiled allegorical narrative of robots enslaved by humans, it introduced Monáe's robotic alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, who reappeared as a time-travelling liberation leader on the follow-up, 2013's The Electric Lady. A concept album which continued its predecessor's robots vs humans narrative, it was more conventional in its musical approach, consolidating Monáe's status and meeting the mainstream halfway.

In the years that have followed, there's been a sense of Monáe hearing a ticking clock, and stepping things up, gear by gear. Not only in her public statements – her #TimesUp/#MeToo speech at the Grammys, her Rock The Vote campaigning – but in her art.

The first sign was the truly extraordinary 2015 single 'Hell You Talmbout', one of those records that stops you in your tracks, chills you to the bone and haunts you for days. One of those records with which you'll always remember where you were when you first heard it. In my case, a friend's house with Gilles Peterson's 6music show playing in the background. I didn't catch the name of the act. At first I couldn't tell if I loved or hated it. Part of me thought "What the fuck is this racket?" but it unsettled me, even scared me a little. If music can do that, it probably means 'love'. After a bit of Googling, I was thrilled when it turned out to be one of my favourite artists, going against her normal style. I was already sold on the idea that Janelle was a genius, but never dreamed that she had something like this in the locker.

A six-minute, thirty nine-second percussive chant from Monáe and her Wondaland collective, 'Hell You Talmbout' listed the names of African-American murder victims (largely victims of police brutality) with the repeated instruction to "say his name"/"say her name". It rapidly took on a life of its own, as a chant at Black Lives Matter protest rallies around the States that could be adapted for every new killing. It was the most powerful political record of that year.

Three years later, if you want to see it live, you'll need to go to a gig by David Byrne, who covers it on his current tour. Monáe herself has already moved on to something else. Dirty Computer, her third album, is no less political, but delivers its message in a less brutal manner, containing within its sinuous grooves a sharp and often hilariously witty critique of the racial and sexual inequalities of Trump's America. And it provides the bulk of her current live show, which begins with four Dirty Computer tracks in a row.

Dressed as a futuristic ringmistress in red/white glitter couture and pizza chef checkerboard, Monáe materialises in a rarely-more-hysterical Roundhouse atop a simple wedding-cake podium of white square tiers, ensuring that everyone can see her. Her band largely take a backseat role, but Janelle is flanked almost constantly by her four (brilliant) dancers: all women, all black. This is not a coincidental point: the Dirty Computer tour is to a very large degree an overt celebration of black female beauty. (At one point, the dancers all wear crop tops bearing the words 'Highly Melanated'.)

The show begins with 'Crazy Classic Life', a song which aspires to fulfilling the pursuit of happiness promised by the founding fathers, interpreted to mean the sensuality of “sex in a swimming pool” rather than diamond ring bling. This, Monáe implies, is black America's birthright. It's a song which essentially says “burn your 40 acres and fuck the mule, we want what you've got.”

'Screwed' is a sex-positive take on the trad-fem dictum that sex equals power: “See, if everything is sex/ Except sex, which is power/ You know power is just sex/ You screw me and I'll screw you too...”, she sings in its head-spinning chorus. On the screens we watch the world burn – forest fires, urban disasters – while Monáe dreams of getting “screwed like an animal” while “the bombs are falling in the streets”. In the song's finale, she leads a chant of “SAY IT LOUD, I'M DIRTY AND PROUD” while her dancers baptise we sinners with supersoakers. The message is clear: yeah, sex is power, so share it. Plug in and charge up.

Monáe's own sexuality has long been the subject of prurient speculation, but it's hardly a mystery: she herself has identified variously as bisexual and pansexual, and described herself to Rolling Stone as “a queer black woman in America”. Tonight, introducing cyborg-funk anthem 'Q.U.E.E.N' (a backronym for “Queer. Untouchables. Emigrants. Excommunicated. Negroids.”), she asks “Where are my queens? I said, where are my QUEENS?” She's knowingly addressing two demographics, and they both answer back, with gale force certainty. Later, she will celebrate the Pride movement with heart-shaped hand signs, and announce that we all must embrace who we are, “even if it makes others uncomfortable”.

There was a time when Monáe, due to the androgynous image of her early years (Little Richard pompadour, black suit, dickie-bow tie), was praised precisely for covering up her skin and not being a sexualised performer. Intriguingly, this seems to have riled her. “I see how people try to pit women against each other,” she told The Guardian this year. “There are people who have used my image to slut-shame other women: ‘Janelle, we really appreciate that you don’t show your body.’ That’s something I’m not cool with. I have worn a tuxedo, but I have never covered up for respectability politics or to shame other women.“

When she shock-dropped the twin videos for 'Make Me Feel' and 'Django Jane' in February, it was noticeable that Monáe wasn't averse to a little T&A, as long as it's on her terms. The same applies to the live show: no rear goes un-twerked, and there's a whole lotta bootyshakin' going' on. There's a moment during 'Yoga' when, to delighted screams, Janelle positions herself behind two bent-over dancers, as if pegging them with an invisible strap-on. (At which point, if anyone still finds Monáe's sexuality ambiguous or confusing, they simply aren't paying attention.)

For the not exactly subtle 'Pynk', she goes much further. Monáe dons a pair of amusingly vulval pink frilly trousers, like something Peaches would commission for her wardrobe, while the screen shows slow-mo footage of petals opening, a lump of strawberry bubblegum squished up just-so, a finger entering a pink-glazed doughnut and, just in case we still haven't got the point, neons that say 'Pussy Power'.

When a gold throne and ornate looking glass are brought onstage, anyone who's seen the 'Django Jane' video knows exactly what's coming, and the gig ramps up to a whole new follicle-prickling level of excitement. Serving both as Monáe's we're-not-in-Kansas-any-more superheroine origin story and a call for black girl empowerment (its noticeable that actual black girls are going nuts), 'Django Jane' references Pussy Riot and Van Gogh, and playfully addresses her own androgyny (“Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?”). The couplet “Nigga, move back, take a seat, you were not involved/ And hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue” is exquisite (and the cue for the video's most comical sight gag), and becomes the song's abrupt ending, as if to ram the point home.

Its sister single 'Make Me Feel' is just as thrilling. Silhouetted on the podium in smoke and white light, Monáe dances to those 'Drop It Like It's Hot' tongue-clicks with an elongated routine of Michael Jackson-inspired moves, but the song inevitably recalls another Eighties icon: Prince. Its video referenced those of 'Kiss' and 'Batdance' (as well as echoing the Black Mirror episode San Junipero), and tonight Monáe wears a 'My Name Is Prince'-style chain veil while her dancers adopt raspberry berets. “Baby don't make me spell it out for you...” she sings, somewhat redundantly.

As a Prince-lover, the mutual appreciation society between him and Monáe was gratifying to watch. In that same Guardian interview, Monáe called Prince - and Bowie - a ‘free motherfucker’, the ultimate compliment in Janelle World (and a T-shirt slogan at the merch stall). It made perfect sense that they would be fans of each other, and their duet on Monáe's 'Givin' Em What They Love' made it official. When 'Make Me Feel' came out, my immediate thought was that Prince could never have made this record. “Not the Prince of the end of his life, anyway,” I wrote on social media. “Those beats, those sounds, those words, would not have been within his reach. But they are within hers. Janelle has taken up the challenge of his most experimental records and run with it.”

I was wrong. Prince DID make that record, or co-create it at least: it's the result of a collaboration between the two, based on a synth riff he'd had knocking around for years. The sadness of that collaboration being cut cruelly short is tempered by the thought that Monáe, more than anyone alive, is carrying the baton of Prince's Eighties inventiveness into the 21st century.

'Make Me Feel' isn't even the night's first Prince reference. 'PrimeTime', already a very 'Purple Rain'-esque track, mutates into that song in a haze of violet lights as Monáe's guitarist Kellindo Parker plays the signature outro riff, causing a spontaneous outbreak of the “ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh...” refrain. A lot of dry ice in the house. But not a dry eye.

The only longueur is 'Don't Judge Me', a lull in the show's momentum during which Monáe swigs from a bottle of wine as we watch relaxation video-style footage of soaring seagulls, lapping waves and slow-spinning constellations. That aside, the momentum rarely dips, and it's a sign of the quality of her new material that by the time she busts out ArchAndroid hits 'Cold War' and 'Tightrope', you've almost forgotten that she's neglected that album till now.

Though not considered the most interactive of performers, there's a fair bit of audience participation, including the old trick of making everyone get low on the lager-sticky floor then leap up on cue. For 'I Got The Juice' (the track containing the Trump putdown “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back”) she invites four audience members, including a woman in a wheelchair, and instructs them to bust some moves, one by one. There's a slightly eggy period of dread when everyone wonders how this is going to play out when it's the wheelchair owner's turn, but Lucy smashes it out of the park with an enthusiastic hand-jive, to wild applause.

Monáe is such a phenomenal performer that it's easy for fans to develop a sense of burning injustice, and wonder why she's at the Roundhouse and not selling out the O2 like Beyonce or Rihanna. This is a pernicious trap to fall into: pitting black females against black females, like it's a league table, doesn't help anyone (and it's worth mentioning that Monáe loves Beyonce, and that the feeling's mutual).

But what are the reasons for the disparity in success? The respected Dutch critic Gijsbert Kamer, after a show in Amsterdam, recently tweeted “Everything about Janelle Monáe in Paradiso is great. But I do have an answer as to why she isn't the superstar that she should be: too few killer tunes.” In some ways that's a fair point: Monáe's music rarely takes the Route One approach to hands-in-the-air choruses, preferring to insinuate its way into your memory by stealth. That said, a track as infectious as 'Electric Lady' ought to have been all over the airwaves. Perhaps there's a simpler explanation: it's hardly surprising that the daytime radio red carpet hasn't been rolled out to someone who keeps singing about areolas and vaginas. It's also worth remembering that at the same three-album stage of his career (though far younger in age), Prince was a just nervous lingerie rocker playing the Lyceum. And look where he ended up. You wouldn't rule it out.

None of which matters when you're in the room and Janelle Monáe is absolutely owning the place. There's a feeling crackling in the air that something's happening here. We're witnessing a great artist – maybe the last 'great artist' – at the top of her game. Or, yet more mouth-watering, still nowhere near the top.

Impressive. Empress-ive. Imperious. Imperial.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.