Janelle Monáe: a singer transforming the Vic into her own dazzling world

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

by MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

There was Janelle Monáe, near almost the end of her show, making the decision to crawl onto the raised hands of her audience. The strangers on the floor of the Vic moved her across, but instead of tumbling and turning, she stretched her body to one side, kicked up her heels, and elegantly poised as if having a private moment on a floating chaise lounge.

Such was one of the many expectations laid to waste by Monáe and her nine-member band. She is an emerging star that does not just pay homage to obvious touchstones like Prince and Michael Jackson, but is proving she stands comfortably in their company. Like Solange Knowles, Frank Ocean, and Esperanza Spalding, Monáe is moving the goalposts of modern R&B far down the field, but unlike others, she is also an artist with mass appeal and an arsenal of talents that guarantees a long and rich artistic output.

The 100-minute, sold-out show at the Vic Monday was expertly crafted, down to the duotone backdrop — black and white stripes on the bass drum to the guitarist’s socks — and a storyline that involved men in white lab coats in pursuit of the singer, cast as a paranoid android. Jack White would have been proud.

But unlike what is typical among the marquee lip-syncing divas of today, those attributes did not serve to distract from the main attraction. Monáe is a vocalist whose range is high, but she doesn’t make a fuss about getting up there. Her songs are positive and upbeat, rarely dwelling in dark corners. “Electric Lady,” a slab of glammed-up funk with a big pop hook, became a show highlight, contrasting with the slower “Primetime,” set to just fingersnaps, a cymbal hiss, and shimmering guitar chords.

Most of these songs came from “The Electric Lady” (Bad Boy/Atlantic), her second album cast against a science fiction backdrop, but musically rooted in the 1970’s and 1980’s, where hard funk and synth pop were not exclusive of one another. Her band did not mince space or time, keeping the manic energy at full tilt. The covers — “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 and “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince — were true to the originals, right down to the braking guitar solo of the latter.

Monáe transcended her references through her command of the stage and how she guided things forward with fluttering dance moves, winking humor, and a generous spirit she traded between her band and the audience. A platform (white of course) positioned before the drum riser was used for the moments, as on “Tightrope,” when she jumped on top and conducted her liquid feet through simple, but quick-cutting choreography. The dance steps of most divas are often designed to demand obedience from the audience through harsh thrusts accompanied by a battalion of dancers; with Monáe, there was the sense of old-school hoofers like Gene Kelly who conveyed breezy uplift and elegant style.

Near the end of the show, during “Come Alive (The War of the Roses),” a wild rave-up set to a rumble beat, Monáe collapsed in a daze, resuscitated by the surrounding handclaps of her band. This comical bit of theater had her putting her band in a spell where they took to the floor — bassist and guitarist vamping horizontally — while she hushed the crowd to do the same. Then she slipped off the lip of the stage into the audience, unaccompanied by security, and spent the next few minutes walking among her crouching fans while keeping beat through the clicks of her fingers.

In an era when more stars hide behind real and virtual barriers to cloak their deficiencies, Monáe didn’t blink before standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her fans on a theater floor. Anything could happen, which was a good thing.

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