I went to see Janelle Monae live for the first time on Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom. It was her free album release party for “The ArchAndroid,” which was released earlier that day. I was definitely impressed. What I was most impressed by was her versatility. She is sometimes talked about as a little bit of James Brown mixed with a bit of Prince and Michael Jackson, influenced by rock and hip hop, especially the Atlanta-based group, OutKast (not surprising then that Big Boi, half of OutKast, is her mentor and appears on the single, Tightrope — by the way, this video is very very cool).
By versatility I mean that she draws on music from all over the last 60 years as she creates her Android record. During Tuesday night’s show, I saw at least one song each that appeared to be directly influenced by music from the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. To me, that showed incredible range. Many people have mentioned this. What, however, is less mentioned is how Ms. Monae is clearly influenced by musical theater and cinematic-like productions. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the now-24-year-old first moved to New York City to pursue a career on Broadway, first studying theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It becomes clear after watching her perform that her sets are actually theatrical productions rooted in musical theatre: there is art direction, costumes, choreography, lights, projected video — and a wall of lushly-produced sound that incorporates pre-programmed loops. Suffice it to say, her band is incredibly tight.
And of course there is Ms. Monae herself. She is a triple threat: she can sing, rap and dance. With her own form of android-robot-like moves, she glides around the stage as light as a feather, grabbing and rocking the mic-stand at will as if she has done it her entire life. Here, one can definitely see the influence of Brown, Prince and MJ. It’s no wonder why Ms. Monae has been rocking and buzzing up the underground music scene for some time now. The ArchAndroid is really like her album debut into mainstream pop. And yes, the mainstream needs this refreshing breath of air and creativity.
My only criticism of her is quite minor. During the live show, I would have liked to see more interaction with the audience. Just some sort of give and take — like a “Here I am performing, how are you doing? Yes, I’m up on stage performing, but we’re here rocking together.” Probably largely due to her theatrical background, Ms. Monae seems quite disconnected from the audience, maintaining somewhat of a performance fourth wall. And as one of her songs from her 2007 EP, “Metropolis Suites I of IV: The Chase,” is titled, Smile, I’d like to see her do some more of that. She seems quite content to keep a permanently petrified look with wide eyes as she performs. Is she having fun up there? The question I have is: how could she not?