You can usually tell an awful lot about an artist by looking at the people who trudge across town and pay to see them live. There are exceptions, but for the most part you wouldn’t expect to see too many leather-clad, tattooed Napalm Death fans amongst the jumpered biddies at a Daniel O’Donnell concert, and vice-versa. Actually, the vice-versa situation would be incredible to witness. With blood-spattered elderly folk not a likely outcome this evening, looking around the Camden Roundhouse says a lot about the kind of artist Janelle Monáe is. Shoreditch twats sip their Old Speckled Hens alongside ghetto princesses and smooching couples of every sexual configuration, maturities ranging from the pubescent to the craggy. If there’s one thing Monáe’s music could never be accused of being, it’s exclusive.
Her acclaimed debut LP, last year’s The Archandroid (Suites II & III) is, to use the most overused adjective in music criticism, kaleidoscopic. Influences range from P-Funk to James Brown to Wu Tang to nu-folk and psychedelia, but it's her singular, conceptual clarity that defines her. The premise of the album, and of tonight's show, is that Monáe is a cyborg sent back from the future basically to funk the hell out of us and prepare us for a distinctly anti-dystopian world where robots are everywhere and they're just wicked. Not here to harvest us for organs and tissue, just to 'Dance Or Die', as the video of her face implores us to do in the show's introduction (most people opted for Dance).
After said video introduction, Monáe arrives shrouded in a hooded cloak and pokey-beaked mask borrowed straight from Eyes Wide Shut, flanked by two other identical dancers. They lithely wriggle about the front of the stage, the monotonic opening rap of 'Dance Or Die' coming from the lips of one of them, we don't know which. There's a unique menace to this. Perhaps it relates to the Kubrickian unease, perhaps it's the unnerving resemblance these three dark freaks bear to the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal - whichever it is, the theatrical façade is broken down brilliantly as soon as Monáe throws her cloak onto the floor and proceeds to dance like she's squashing grapes for wine that needed to be in the shops yesterday.
The premise of the album, and of tonight's show, is that Monáe is a cyborg sent back from the future basically to funk the hell out of us.
She smashes out the first four tunes from The Archandroid in rapid, bridging succession, and then stops dead to perform Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile'. At this point, it's pretty clear that Monáe is more than capable of changing pace at the flick of a quiff. Speaking of which, her quiff is shared by her backing singers and accentuated by the costumes. Intended as a monolith, a symbol recognisable by its mere silhouette, this simple follicular extension begs to be as iconographic as the Golden Arches or the Nike swoosh. Or that other fella with the quiff. White coat, used to be in the army, loved a cheeseburger? Can't remember his name.
As the evening progresses the quiff becomes ever more disheveled until strands of it start to stick to her face. Happily, her character doesn't come undone in the same way and, as we are immersed in the gloopy Quaalude-splash of 'Mushrooms & Roses', it remains totally tight. An easel is brought onstage for Monáe to daub upon, and she quickly produces a simple, womanly outline that is later given away to an audience member whose birthday it is. In lesser hands, this would be weird, pretentious and stall an otherwise hyperactive show, but the buoyant wash of the song is the ultimate binding agent.
The best is still yet to come, though. The punky bass riff of 'Come Alive' is fine enough, allowing our quiffy, squiffy hero to indulge in all sorts of hysterical shrieking, but it's when she turns her attention to the crowd that the evening takes on a different quality. Until this point, Monáe hasn't engaged the crowd much at all apart from the occasional begrudging "thank you", so when she yells at the audience to sit down on the floor it's especially surprising. What's even more surprising is that, regardless of how uncomfortable it is and how likely they are to get a cidery resin on their arses, the audience does it. Any stragglers are baited with the refrain "we don't get up until you get down," until everyone is well and truly wedged-in. It seems mind-slappingly simple for her and her band to then erupt once more on command and send the revellers rapturous to their feet, but it obviously works beautifully. Sweet relief all round.
While the feeling rushes back to our heels, a bizarre intra-band brawl erupts on the stage. Stage punches are thrown, strangling piggy-backs are given and received and, in a bizarre bout of reflexivity gone utterly batshit, Monáe herself is throttling one of her backing singers, giving the impression that she is in fact throttling herself. The identical quiffs go at each other with the ferocity of fighting cocks until the songs collapses on itself and Monáe fake-shoots the whole band with her pointed finger. It would be a cliché to say that a star is born (and terribly late as well, given that Diddy's signed her up as something of a mentoring project), but there's no better way to describe it. Few artists emerge so fully-formed, so strangely perfect and with a self-obsessed personality dented to the point of apparent mania. Be careful with Janelle Monáe, everyone - there's only one of her.
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