October 3, 2011

Monae Mystifies

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Sometimes it is not just the music, but the atmosphere that makes the night. With a closer stage than usual and a respectful crowd filling the ranks, Janelle Monáe tore down the usual barriers to become one with the audience at Sunday night’s intimate, energetic set. It was a comfortable antithesis to B.o.B’s crowded and sweaty concert at Homecoming, with a smaller crowd that knew exactly where they wanted to be. Prelims and the rush before fall break likely kept many holed up in their dorms. Their loss. Monáe, a soaring rocket of talent and class, ignited Barton Hall with an incendiary performance.

The neo-soul darling has played shows for nearly a decade, but with the success of her first album, The ArchAndroid, last year, she is finally giving it all for the crowds she deserves. As a result, Monáe navigates the stage with the grace of a veteran, yet absorbs the rapture of her audience with gratitude the jaded have long forgotten. Decked in a tight tuxedo shirt and exaggerated black necktie, the fashionista blended singing, dancing and performance art (the term used quite literally in this case) into a stylish conglomerate of experimental R&B and funky, retro throwback. It is fitting she covered two classics from her heroes, with Prince’s 80s hit “Take Me With U” and the Jackson 5’s immortal “I Want You Back.” The original singers’ voices already bordered on the effeminate, and Janelle captured the youthful yearning with her soaring lines and stunning range. Certainly no one in the crowd was expecting the pitch-perfect delivery of “All I want … All I neeeeed!!” in the Jackson standard, but she met the challenge.

Her command of voice is thoroughly impressive, as she juggles a myriad of styles without struggle. “Locked Inside” could be a lost Thriller cut, with bass slinking underneath bars that allow for plenty of vibrato improvisation. Really, you wonder where Quincy Jones was hiding on the production credits. The cut staccato of “Wondaland” stands in stark contrast, and she held the microphone close as she screeched and ridiculously instructed, “Take her back to Wondaland/ She thinks she left her underpants.” Trust me, she could stick any absurd phrase in this refrain and you would still end up singing it to yourself on the way home. “Dance or Die,” which opened the festivities, basically blends hip-hop, funk and afropop into a groovy chant that allows for her to pace across the stage and survey the fans she will entertain for the night.

Janelle’s two huge hits, “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” received enthusiastic hoots and hollers upon the initial measures alone. Following her sensational performance at the Grammys this year, “Cold War” has entered the playlists of millions due to the fact that it is … well, awesome. “Tightrope” wears its influence on its sleeve, with that James Brown enunciation of “sceeene” and even numerous dance breaks as horns blast behind. You have to appreciate the stamina of this girl. No synchronized moves were defined; she fell into the groove. A dance-savvy individual could list all her techniques better than me, though the whole crowd witnessed gliding redolent of the late King of Pop.

When interviewed by the Sun last week, Monáe pitched her show as “not just a concert” but a “full experience.” Behind this 25-year-old Vessel of Soul a huge backing band laid the foundation. Not only one enthusiastic guitar player but assorted percussion, strings, backup singers and a full horn section. The James Bond brass punches and sweeping violins in “Sincerely, Jane” added a layer of class to a track aspiring to be a 60s Burt Bacharach composition. She regularly interacted with her musicians in crime, conducting the band with her giant winglike cloak for appropriately epic endings. Cyclops shades, Victorian masks and black robes made for a bizarre costume rack, and don’t forget the black and white balloon orgy throughout “Tightrope.” Monáe even stopped to paint her “Insanity Painting” — to which she gifted to one lucky birthday girl after the show — which consisted of angry swipes of paint on an innocent canvas.

Artists of Janelle’s caliber are not always so spot-on live. I saw Cee-Lo at Lollapalooza this summer and it was terrible. He had the audience — easily numerated in the hundreds of thousands — in his hand, yet lost them through awkward, extended banter and distant stage presence. It was a dreadful performance. Yet when Janelle silently asked for a hand wave, back and forth, with a heart cusped at the hands, the audience hypnotically obliged. It was natural, not forced, and more than deserved. In the final song of the encore, “Come Alive,” she engaged all of Barton Hall in repeat-after-me scatting before literally having them all descend to the floor. And when she broke the spell by screaming “I came alive!” before flipping over a mic stand, we, just for a moment, shared that collective rush as one.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos