Born to Perform: Janelle Monaé
Tuesday’s Moody Theater extravaganza spurs critical debate
By Thomas Fawcett, 4:00PM, Thu. Nov. 14, 2013
I’m a Janelle Monáe superfan. When I heard she was playing ACL Live at the Moody Theater on Tuesday, I got tickets immediately and implored Chronicle Music editor Raoul Hernandez to do the same. He’s got a thing for female R&B singers and hadn’t yet seen Monáe – a crime that needed correcting.
The next day I emailed to see if the petite, 27-year-old Kansas City native had won the toughest critic in the room. Turns out only 99.9 percent of the crowd was sold.
To: Raoul Hernandez From: Thomas Fawcett
Subject: Janelle Monáe
I mean, she’s the shit, amirite? Curious to hear your thoughts.
To: Thomas Fawcett
From: Raoul Hernandez
Subject: RE: Janelle Monáe
I think I’d have to have seen her when she was more DIY – or that’s what everyone tells me. I loved the theatricality, but I thought her material a bit thin, I couldn't pick her voice out of a line-up, and she gave off ZERO sexuality onstage, which I found weird. It’s all pieces of other things – Michael & Janet Jackson, the Jackie Wilson pompadour, a Whitney-esque ballad. I appreciate that everyone else thought it was off the hook....
TF: And, of course, the James Brown cape routine and the heavy Purple Rain vibe. That’s a fair criticism, but it all works for me. I like that you can see all those touchstones of black music in her from JB and MJ to Prince and Outkast, not to mention the whole lineage of Afro-futurism.
The lack of sexuality is a conscious choice she’s talked about before, part of the whole android thing, but more a rejection of how women in R&B are traditionally marketed. Sexy? Maybe not, but goddamn adorable. Girl can perform her ass off.
RH: I’m with you – on ALL that. And the automaton thing explains the neutral sexuality. I guess then it boils down to the voice, for me: I closed my eyes at one point and thought, “Could I pick this voice out of a line-up?” Answer’s obvious, but how are the three albums?
TF: To put it another way, if you were Cee Lo Green (yes, I’m picturing you with a dashiki, feathered pants, and a Cheshire grin) and Janelle was a contestant on The Voice, you wouldn’t turn your chair around. I’ll cede the point that her voice isn’t her most compelling asset. That would be her vision, creativity and energy.
Here’s the thing though. She’s far better live than on disc. If the show didn’t win you over I’m afraid there’s no hope for you and Cindi Mayweather. The Electric Lady is her best album yet, but it’s still sprawling; brilliant at times, but weighed down by too many ideas. There are great great singles though (“Primetime,” “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Tightrope” from The ArchAndroid), which is interesting.
Usually the progressive, artsy types have the opposite problem: great albums, no hits. There was a recent Pitchfork feature on Monáe that said sometimes it’s easier to like the idea of her (“a whirling, twirling, fantastical funk robot in a tux”) than it is to connect to her music. I ride hard for Team Wondaland, but there's some truth to that.
RH: All day people have asked me what I thought of the show, and when I’ve told them, they just shook their head. So I understand I’m the naysayer here – every group needs one, right? Yet she should be in my wheelhouse. African-American female performers are one of my specialties, and I’ve seen a lifetime of them, from jazz (Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn, Dee Bridgewater) to metal (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Blues, R&B, soul – the gamut: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Koko Taylor, Diana Ross and Janet Jackson (both at the Moody), Sade, Anita Baker, Alicia Keys, Valerie June – you name it. Candi Staton may be the last of ’em on my bucket list.
Mary J. Blige at the Moody in February all but put that whole list to shame. No one I spoke to at the Moody last night even knew Blige had played here in town. In some ways, that told me everything I needed to know about last night’s crowd, LOL.
TF: Count me among those shaking my head. That show was incredible. And she’s not operating in the same space as the women you mention (well, I’ll give you Janet and I’d throw in Erykah Badu as her closest female peer). She’s more George Clinton than Etta James. She’s following in the footsteps of Prince, not trying to be the next Mary J. Blige.
When I first saw Monáe at SXSW 2011, I called her performance “equal parts rock & roll, Broadway musical, and black avant-garde theatre.” Still true, and her stage show has evolved light years ahead of what it was just two years ago. After that show I also wrote this, and stand by it 100%: “Every once in a while you’re blessed to see a visionary artist born to perform. That is Janelle Monáe.”