Janelle Monae’s star power
So this is what the revolution looks and sounds like. We’re in the Hoxton Square Bar, a small room in east London which is packed to capacity. The man on the door says there are 240 people inside, but it …
So this is what the revolution looks and sounds like. We’re in the Hoxton Square Bar, a small room in east London which is packed to capacity. The man on the door says there are 240 people inside, but it sure feels from the heat that they’ve packed in some more bodies. There’s sweat rolling down the walls, there’s excited hollering from the masses and there’s the sense that we’re at an event. All eyes are on the stage where Janelle Monae is rocking her socks off. She just can’t stop. We don’t want her to stop.
Monae is in London to plug the bejaysus out of “The ArchAndroid”. It’s the pop album of the season, an album full to the brim with tunes which take their cues from all over the shop. There’s rock and funk and soul and hip-hop and psychedelia in the mix as Monae tips the hat to (deep breath) James Brown, OutKast, Grace Jones, Sly Stone, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and various other famous flames. Sure, there’s a dastardly concept based on Metropolis (Monae is an android called Cindi Mayweather) and a striking image (tuxedo and quiff), but there are also stone-cold magnificent tunes to keep the whole party going. “Tightrope”, “Cold War”, “Faster”, “Come Alive”, “Wondaland”: she certainly didn’t skimp on the fabulous tunes front. (The album is streaming here).
Those tunes are important because Monae didn’t quite have a handle on this before. I caught her at SXSW 2009 and, while hugely impressed once I’d worked out what was going on, there was little to hang onto bar the brief outlines of a r’n'b/hip-hop star not going through the usual motions. Fastforward a year and Monae has “The ArchAndroid” to do all the heavy lifting for her.
Now, when she plays live, she does so with gusto and a whole bunch of fantastic tunes. As a five piece band (including two dancers who seem to be wearing beaked masks borrowed from The Knife) colour in the lines in the songs, Monae turns on the style. She can sing like an angel, but this is very much about the performance. Every tune packs a punch as Monae the show-woman channels everyone from Muhammad Ali to James Brown. That trademark quiff comes undone time and time again and she pins it back into place every time. It’s part of the uniform and she most definitely is working up there.
We talk a lot about stars and star power these days. Just as we’ve turned “genius” into a catch-all term by hoisting it on bedraggled lo-fi whippersnappers who can’t keep their guitars in tune, our overuse of the star term means we kind of take it for granted.
But Monae’s show retakes, remakes and reshapes that. You watch her turn this packed little club insideout and upsidedown and you know this is just the start of things. It’s exciting, uninhibited, edgy, sexy, provocative and exhiliaring. She’s a star, pure and simple, and she’s just getting started.