My initial reaction to Janelle Monáe’s seminal breakthrough album, the wonderful The ArchAndroid, was bafflement at the fact she was not a huge star already. She had the charisma, the voice, and the songs to conquer the world, and yet despite that album’s stellar critical reception, she remained someone outside the mainstream spotlight. Why? Her career since then suggests she asked herself the same question.
A couple of years after The ArchAndroid’s release, Monáe returned in 2013 with The Electric Lady, which featured guest appearances from the likes of Miguel, Erykah Badu, and none other than Prince. If that album didn’t quite reach the heights of her previous one, it seemed to have had the desired effect as Sunday night she was the headliner at the Hollywood Bowl, as iconic a show as you could hope for.
As her excellent backing band launched into “Givin Em What They Love,” Monáe took to the stage with the confidence that has been there since the beginning. The tuxedo get-up is gone and the songs are new, but Janelle Monáe remains unchanged as a performer as far as her approach goes.
Thank goodness for that. Monáe is almost unmatched as a pop star stage presence, and she maintained an unbelievable level of energy and effervescence for the duration of the set. She has the vocal chops to match Beyonce, but with just enough of the art-school outsider element to make her seem in touch with the rest of us mere mortals. She can also make a Jackson 5 medley detour sound fresh, although she needed a little help with a cover of the played-to-death James Brown staple “I Feel Good.”
I could quite happily die without hearing that song ever again, but this version was a little different. When Monáe said she was bringing an idol of hers out to the stage, there was a moment of anticipation followed by a lot of “Holy shit, that’s Stevie Wonder!” type reactions. It was indeed the legend himself, and watching him perform with Monáe was enough of a novelty to make the performance the highlight of the show, though it says something about Monáe’s wattage that Wonder still looked very much a supporting player.
The second half of her set contained older songs, and as a double whammy, it’s hard to beat “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” which sound as fresh and dynamic now as they did before we were familiar with their creator. Monáe also managed to make the ballad “Primetime” take off late in the set, her range giving it a power on stage that it perhaps lacks on record.
And then it all finished with the obligatory extended version of “Come Alive,” complete with a wild performance from the Electric Lady that suggested it takes every ounce of willpower she has to keep her inner freak under control. She needn’t worry too much. Clearly the crowd loves the inner freak, the outer star, and the small but fierce package that contains the two. The show may have been slick and brilliantly professional, but that’s nothing new for Janelle Monáe. The stages have just got a lot bigger.
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