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May 12, 2014 1:29 pm
You could tell that Janelle Monáe is a wonderful show-off from the way she moonwalked backwards across the Brixton Academy’s stage while fixing the audience with her gaze and smiling, as though to say “Look at me and applaud, lesser mortals” – which, of course, we did. Later she sang the line “Is that OK?” from the seduction anthem “Primetime” with a knowing flourish, certain in the knowledge that to the 5,000 present it wasn’t OK: it was fantastic.
Monáe is touring her album The Electric Lady, the third in a series of records inspired by the 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. The theme links the Kansas City-born singer to “Afrofuturism”, a tradition in African-American music inspired by other-worldly imagery of aliens, robotics and space travel, as epitomised by Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton. By the end of an utterly exhilarating gig, a Hendrix song playing on the PA as the lights came on, Monáe had staked a convincing claim to belong in such illustrious company.
The stage set was monochrome, like archive footage of an old television programme brought to life. There were white drapes at the back and to the side, white instruments and white outfits. Monáe was wheeled on stage in a white straitjacket by a flunky in a doctor’s white coat and black bow tie. Two backing singers wore matching minidresses with black-and-white geometric patterns. Their pink nail varnish provided the only splash of colour, bar the light show.
Monáe shed her straightjacket immediately and launched into the slinky funk of “Givin’ Em What They Love”, a trumpeter and trombonist blowing away, the lead guitarist cranking out extravagant solos. The music had an old-fashioned pedigree, uniting tight James Brown dynamism with splashy 1980s flourishes. “Dance Apocalyptic” was a jittery R&B Charleston. “Electric Lady” channelled Afrofuturist lyrics (“She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos”) into infectious funk reminiscent of her Atlanta rap mentors Outkast.
Her voice was energetic rather than virtuosic, a bright act of assertion within the bustling songs. Meanwhile her stage presence was magnetic, a remarkable display of spontaneous choreography, complete with crowd-surfing, a section when she pretended to collapse and had to be revived by the white-jacketed flunky and, surreally, a mass pillow fight. Her pose at the end of “What Is Love” – spot-lit with her back to the audience, one arm raised, standing on the drum riser – was reminiscent of Michael Jackson. This was showmanship of the very highest order.
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