Janelle Monae is an alien, an outsider, a misfit. Confounding critics and listeners since appearing on the Big Boi- curated Got Purp? Volume 2 back in 2005, she’s also been Exhibit A in one of the music industry’s most persistent and perplexing failings: what to do with black alternative artists. For an industry that hasn’t used the term “race records” since 1958, not a lot has changed, especially for artists that challenge the “hip-hop, R&B or nothing” paradigm. Unlike the census form, there isn’t an “other” box to check. Just ask Saul Williams, K-Os, and Kenna.
But all of that may be changing, with the little-d democratizing of the digital age, especially for an artist like Monae. At the Black Cat on Monday to kick-off her ArchAndroid tour, her performance art-cum-concert even made a few tongue in cheek references to Twitter, Facebook, and God forbid, MySpace. And playing to a sold-out crowd, something must be working. Maybe the wave of (rightly deserved) hype that she’s been riding for nearly half a decade is finally ready to break.
With Monae not taking the stage until two and half hours after doors opened, the audience was anxious, to say the least, as introductory music and video played until around 10:30. But any ill will was quickly forgotten as the performance kicked off. Monae, in trademark throwback trappings, stayed “in character” the entire show, with her herky-jerky dance moves and impressive vocal range. She was joined on stage by an on-spot three piece band and a few other performance artists, throwing balloons and noise makers into the first rows.
The songs of ArchAndroid dominated the set; only “Sincerely, Jane” from her debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite made an appearance, bittersweet for fans hoping to hear favorites like “Violet Stars Happy Hunting” and “Many Moons.” However, the first singles off her debut full length, the smooth, swinging “Tightrope” and the stirring “Cold War,” are in familiar enough territory that fans, old and new alike, will be singing and dancing along in no time.
After a dense 45 minute set that moved between operatic ballads and jams that just drip funk, it was time for Monae to blast off and head for her home planet. But not before fearlessly crowdsurfing the entire crowd, threatening to brain herself on the low ceilings at the Cat. Forgoing an encore for an after party at the Renaissance was an interesting choice, although I don’t know how many restless androids took her up on the offer. ArchAndroid lands on May 18.