Janelle Monáe review: a masterclass in progressive showbiz spectacle

Not all superheroes wear capes. This one does, though. Janelle Monáe arrives on stage two nights into a three-show residency at Factory International’s well-appointed new(ish) home resplendent in a giant robe made entirely from fabric flowers, paired with blooming boots and headdress. It’s the same outfit she wore at Glastonbury, and the one she has been wearing as support act to Coldplay in European stadiums. The wow factor is, though, undimmed – a tropicalist take on pagan that presages a series of eye-catching costume changes. Monáe asks us to lift up our cups, and we toast “the dreams we chase”: an apposite invocation for election eve.

She, and we, are on our “Champagne Shit” tonight. It’s the title of a party-forward track semi-inspired by political Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s Expensive Shit. Monáe’s most recent album, The Age of Pleasure, is just over a year old, and it bumps and grinds the message home that life is for living, that pleasure is both a personal “birthright” and a political necessity, and that “the most abundant and sustainable resource is our love”.

Sex-positive records from female-presenting artists are hardly rare. But this playful, frank display marks the vast distances travelled from Monáe’s severely buttoned-up presentation of a decade ago, when she resolved to upend expectations by showing precisely zero flesh, dressing retro and singing about android dystopias. Now, backed by a female-majority band, she lies down on mirrored steps for Phenomenal, mimes smoking a blunt, thrusts her hips skywards and remains resolutely classy.

Things are different now, as she sings on Float (“No, I’m not the same”). The term multihyphenate is a little overused, but Monáe is no longer a fringe visionary with her own label-cum-creative salon, Wondaland, who raps, sings and dances – an almost-composite of Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu and Lady Gaga, yet relentlessly original.

Her film career has, if anything, somewhat overshadowed the music, with spotlight-grabbing roles in Hidden Figures (2016), Moonlight (2016) and the Knives Out series of movies. She has the ear of Michelle Obama, and given any podium inveighs like a puckish civil rights leader. There’s also a book – The Memory Librarian (2022) – expanding on themes from Monáe’s 2018 LP Dirty Computer.

‘A tropicalist take on pagan’: Janelle Monáe in Manchester, England. Photograph: Richard Saker/the Observer

Moreover, she contains multitudes. Monáe has blossomed into a LGBTQ+ figurehead after coming as out as pansexual in 2018 and a long negotiation with her religious Kansas upbringing. She self-described as nonbinary – and “a free-ass motherfucker” – in 2022 and celebrates polyamory. Only Have Eyes 42 is one of The Age of Pleasure’s sweetest tracks, a soulful lover’s rock cut about throupling up, whose matching online visual is a shot of Monáe covered in googly-eye stickers.

There are shoutouts tonight, too, to Pride pioneers including Marsha P Johnson and Meshell Ndegeocello. Revisiting tracks from the vaults – such as Q.U.E.E.N (2013) – it’s clear Monáe was telling us all along. “Even if it makes someone uncomfortable, I will love what I am,” she sings. Similarly, Yoga, from 2015, is unabashed body-positive party music that invites people who would “police” her to “get off my areola”.

With nearly two decades of shapeshifting behind her, Monáe has plenty of eras to draw on over this generous two-hour set. Divided into chapters, her performance is a display of versatility that knits together into a cogent narrative. Haute crowns the current era, a hair-tossing, horn-driven strut in which Monáe declares: “I’m young and I’m black and I’m wild.”

Even harder-hitting, Django Jane, from Dirty Computer, finds her sporting 60s shades and a beret – vintage Nation of Islam references, topped off with another runway-worthy cloak. Her fierce, flawless rapped verses cover her own autobiographical rise and the upwelling of recognition for the “highly melanated”. An ode to women’s bodies, the colour of the brain and much more, Pynk provides an opportunity to air out Monáe’s infamous vulva trousers, tonight topped off with a labial fascinator.

There are big musical nods to Prince as well as Michael Jackson’s dancing; JM does MJ very well, adding a flamenco flair to his moonwalk. Even the cheesy things performers so often do – divide the crowd for call-and-response, summon fans on stage – are somehow made fresh when Monáe executes them. A series of voguers and shakers culled from the audience strut their stuff with elastic bonhomie at the end of Paid in Pleasure; a woman who unexpectedly jump-drops into the splits is rewarded with a hug.

It’s hard to fault this masterclass in progressive values allied to high-calibre showbiz. A postscript to Cold War lays out Monáe’s platform in full – a speech you wish you’d had the wit to voice-note for posterity. With warmth and steel, she stresses the imperative for unity between marginalised groups, expresses outrage at the suffering in Sudan, Darfur, Kabul and Gaza and at those criminalised for being homeless. There are rousing words in defence of reproductive rights, against antisemitism and Islamophobia: all deserve to “feel safe, loved and protected”.

“It’s gonna be us that saves us,” she concludes, urging people to vote for those who align with those values. A blazing one-two of Tightrope and the zombie-themed Come Alive closes off proceedings with a becaped soul revue finale, with Monáe mock-ending the set with “one time!” and the band crashing down, multiple times. “Tell anyone who didn’t come,” twinkles Monáe as a parting thought, “that we came…” A pregnant pause, and then: “Alive!”

The Guardian

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