The shape of rap to come

For mainstream pop at its most futuristic, look to hip-hop/R&B, home of computer-processed vocals and ultra-synthesised rhythms. But for all the technological sophistication, hip-hop/R&B rarely pushes the envelope subject matter-wise: witness sci-fi beatmaker Timbaland’s habit of popping up on songs with knuckle-dragging raps such as: “Let me see them big titties/Don’t act saddity, you ain’t pretty.” Dear, oh dear: it doesn’t even rhyme.

Janelle Monáe is the electrifying exception to the rule. The Kansas City-born 24-year-old is a protégé of the idiosyncratic rap duo OutKast. Her remarkable concept album The ArchAndroid is inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and tells the story of an android trying to free a dystopian future city from oppression. The blend of futuristic imagery and antiquarianism is reminiscent of “steampunk”, the retro sci-fi subculture whose adherents dress like Victorian time travellers.

There was a strong steampunk aesthetic at this one-off London gig. Monáe was introduced by a compère in a black top hat and tails. The drummer wore flight goggles; backing dancers had black capes. Monáe’s hair was teased into a gravity-defying quiff and she wore a white shirt with a ruff, like a Victorian child. Her hyperactive dancing soon saw the hair collapse in tendrils over her face, Miss Muffet ambushed by a spider.

The show opened with the classical music of ArchAndroid’s grandly named opening “Suite II Overture”. Then, with a typical handbrake turn, it was off into “Dance or Die”, a rapid-fire rap track with superbly supple emceeing from Monáe. It set the tone for the rest of the set, which skidded by with propulsive, impetuous energy.

If the range of styles was striking, then Monáe’s fluency with them was even more so. “Tightrope” featured dynamic singing à la Beyoncé, “Cold War” sped by to a peppy Gnarls Barkley beat. “Sincerely Jane” had a Broadway bustle (she trained at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy), while “Smile”, a powerful bluesy ballad, showed she could do the slow stuff too.

Expressionist singing gestures – hand outstretched, head flung back – evoked the heightened style of a silent movie actress, while machine-like jerky movements brought to mind Metropolis’s female cyborg. An intense performer with total belief in her music, Monáe makes R&B/hip-hop’s future look bright. That’s as in brilliant. ()

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