Janelle Monáe, The Roundhouse, 11/09/18
“This is dedicated to all the free-ass motherfuckers!” yells Janelle Monae exultantly half way through her show at the Roundhouse. As she stands atop a white plinth bathed in light, and dressed in a pristine red and white PVC outfit and checkerboard trousers, she surveys the crowd, staring defiantly out from behind a peaked cap. A feeling of energy and exhilaration ripples from the stage through the crowd, the air crackles with electric anticipation.
That’s the power that Janelle Monáe radiates right now. It makes tonight’s show not only a rapturous celebration of difference and independence; of sexual liberation, feminism and individuality, but also a radiant, dazzling celebration of her unique talents – a party that we’ve all been invited to, where we can be whoever we want to be. “This show is celebrating what makes you unique, even of it makes other uncomfortable,” she tells us.
Tonight she proves she can be many things at once, as she deftly morphs from mischievous sci-fi soldier to futuristic queen conductor, sitting on her throne surveying her adoring subjects. Words like ‘enigma’ and ‘polymath’ have followed her around, the idea that she hides behind concepts, characters and the dystopian worlds she creates, that’s she’s too clever and doesn’t reveal the real her. But the show tonight is her voice, the truest glimpse we’ve seen of her, as she creates her own world; a joyful, euphoric soul-funk opera with Janelle Monáe, the star, at the centre of everything.
It’s so frantic at times you feel like she could spontaneously combust. Yet she also seems like an artist in total control as she swaggers across the stage. Confident, sassy, a playful smile never far from her lips, she is the conductor; the electric, pulsing core to the everything happening around her, supported by four dancers and an impressive five-piece band.
There are six costume changes into new futuristic uniforms; the whole venue reverberates with joyful energy and audience members are invited on stage (or “four dirty computers that have the juice” as she puts it) to dance, scream ‘I’ve got the juice’ (one audience member is castigated for admonished she ‘might’ have the juice) and jubilantly show off their moves on stage.
But this is a show where there’s always the feeling that there’s a message – a beating heart – not far from the surface. During ‘Screwed’ she take the lyrics ( I don’t care / We’ll put water in your guns / We’ll do it all for fun) and makes them real. Backing dancers fire water pistols over the audience as real guns, rioting and bombs loom ominously on the big screens behind them as she raps about the injustices facing women and black Americans.
Monáe has always known that the meaning behind the songs matters just as much as the songs themselves. And that idea is what makes this show work, as it brings together the political and personal, her beliefs and what she holds important. She thanks London for fighting for LGBTQIA rights, for black rights, for women’s rights and for immigrant’s rights and “for love: the only thing that will get us through.” This might be a party but there’s a message here.
During Pynk she dons the now famous vagina trousers (sadly these are not available at the merch table) as she celebrates sexual freedom. Later the words ‘Say it loud / I’m dirty and proud’ flash on the huge screens. She also takes on sexism with Django Jane’s as she reclines in a throne and demands we “Hit the mute button / let the vagina have a monologue”, followed by a dramatic pause.
And during all of this there’s also time for a Prince tribute as PrimeTime slowly morphs into the euphoric outro of Purple Rain. “I love you Prince,” she says. There are nods to the Purple One throughout, not least in the encore of ‘Make Me Feel’ – her homage to his ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ – during which you can feel his spirit and his sense of adventure.
There are hints of Michael Jackson too as she shimmies and glides along to an extended intro to ‘Make Me Feel’ before a jaw-dropping run climax of ‘Cold War’ and ‘Tightrope’ bring the set to a stunning close.
This is an dazzling, adventurous and ecstatic show. Original, individual and defiant, she doesn’t fit within many easy, lazy labels and that makes her the star we need right now. An artist at the top of her game. As she sings during ‘I Like That’ – a song which could be her manifesto – “I’m always left of centre and that’s right where I belong… I never like to follow… I always knew I was the shit.” Tonight, more than ever, Janelle Monáe proves it.