Image via Village Voice.
Think Prince or Michael Jackson, there’s something to be said about these great artists whose careers are worth following, in the flesh. They are always in character. It takes a creative soul to just not give a fuck. Their bravery, makes them “real.” Our take on true artistes is embodied in Janelle Monae. She readied her new album with a wild show at the Highline Ballroom last night. The robot alter-ego that torches the dancefloor, and leaves it on fire, that’s all her though. We’re left with her calling card, which is a peek into the secret imagination of her on and off-stage character. Most of us get uncomfortable if some stares us straight in the eyes. How can we judge someone who is baring it all to strangers?
I say this because Janelle Monae does just that. When she becomes Cyndi Mayweather, it is much debated within her fan circles if she deviates, but last night I came to the realization there is no difference. Yes, you can always expect her to be in black and white. Yes, that pompadour is ever-present but this is only the stark uniform of the brightest personality. As she performed songs off her much-awaited LP, The ArchAndroid, the crowd went nuts but honestly nobody went as crazy as Janelle. Off came her cape, down came her hair and not for a minute did she stop. There was no break. As she jumped into “Dance or Die,” an afrobeat-infused, blood-pumping track that feels like the best foot-stomping, hand-clapping dance cypher you joined on a drunk night. The crowd seemed almost frozen in awe. Janelle jerked, shimmied, twisted, jumped and shouted to her heart’s content. During “Tightrope” she donned her cape and seemed to call down the spirit of James Brown onto herself and channel it into an ethereal energy. When her hair fell apart during “Violet Stars, Happy Hunting” she finished the rest of her set peeking through a shroud of curly hair pouring down on her face. The entire audience then came undone.
If you have yet to see this young lady’s live show you are missing a cosmic experience. A chance to, for lack of better words, bug the fuck out. Nobody at a Janelle Monae show is staring at anybody else. Your eyes are glued to the pint-sized spitfire as your body jerks spastically and you try to figure out whether she is a hallucination from the best part of your brain or maybe someone slipped you a quaalude. No matter because in this moment of reckless abandon, Janelle makes you comfortable. She is pouring out everything that goes through her mind, every moment seems improvised and you feel good enough to let go. Only afterwards do you realize it was quite planned. Everything from the jazz music that plays while you wait to the lighting onstage that at times only exposes her eyes coyly teasing you. There’s no resisting an encore. Janelle is very much in control.
The persona of an artist cannot be the person they were before. It is a separate entity that must evolve and grow on its on if its ever to make a difference in the mind of the audience. There can be no cognitive dissonance. Janelle does this effortlessly. So much so that you probably didn’t notice all the songs are still about Cyndi Mayweather the rebel and intergalactic fugitive cyborg. Leave it to Janelle to manipulate you into your own freedom. Like your mother always said: its for your own good.