“Like a dancing robot trying to do the Human,” is one of the myriad flailing ways I have attempted to describe the mesmerizing stage presence of stellar/interstellar r&b atom-bomb Janelle Monáe, a stupendously bombastic singer/songwriter/crowd-surfer with whom, as readers of the Voice‘s online entity are no doubt aware, I have become obsessed. Right now, she has the best live show going by orders of magnitude: a manic, schizophrenic tornado of bewilderment and exhilaration I’ve seen four times in the past few months, as headliner, opener, and near-afterthought—the setlist and emotional arc nearly identical each time, the effect always a profound shock nonetheless.
Last year, Monáe released Metropolis: The Chase Suite, the first in a series of planned EPs sketching out a daffy sci-fi yarn, set in the year 2719, wherein our heroine is an android who risks disgrace and disassembly by falling in love with a human: “I’m an alien from outer space/I’m a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind,” she chirps, before a surge of visceral, space-age, lushly orchestrated r&b swoops in, attempts to overwhelm her, and fails. Much of that recorded backdrop, including a small army/choir of harmonizing Monáes trying to goad her onward, emits from the stage at pulverizing volume as the real thing pogos maniacally about and a small, live aggro-rock combo exacerbates the chaos, particularly a hair-metal-minded guitarist who sounds like he’s trying to play every lead from Purple Rain simultaneously.
It’s a lot to absorb. But the show’s most devastating moment is also the quietest: After a particularly riotous cock-rock flourish, the guitarist suddenly switches to clean, classic elegance, and Monáe climbs atop a chair to belt out “Smile,” the sweetly gorgeous ode to melancholic optimism from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times: “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking,” and on and on, a show-stopping torch song of disarming grace and fragility, with 90 seconds’ worth of false endings for our lovesick android to wail and whimper through. Then it’s back to more aggro chaos, climaxing with the anthemic 28th-century James Brown funk anthem of the future, “Tightrope,” which itself climaxes with Monáe spreading her arms, turning her back, and trust-falling into the crowd, who passes her tiny frame from hand to hand to the back of the venue with the delicacy of a Fabergé egg.
All of this is at once completely spontaneous and meticulously well thought out, a blueprint of elaborate chaos she’s been sketching since emerging from the extended Outkast nexus a half-decade or so back. “How long have I been into crowd-surfing? Pretty much half my life,” she explains from a touring van, on her way to the last of her dates opening for No Doubt. (Her fellow passengers whoop lustily when they spy her name on a roadside billboard.) “When I was little, I would always crowd-surf in my basement. Take a few pillows . . .” She trails off. “And church. You know, I’d crowd-surf in church.” Don’t they generally frown on that kind of thing? “Not my church.”
She goes on to explain that, while onstage, she often envisions herself in the jungle. The jungle? “Mmm-hmm. Being hunted.”
This is confusing, and yet explains a lot. “Sometimes, I imagine myself in different environments when I’m onstage. There was a point in time when I was watching National Geographic a lot, and I had an obsession with the North Pole, so I would imagine myself very cold and shaking, and it would give off this schizophrenic-type manic behavior. . . . At the moment, I’ve been studying Salvador Dalí, so there are a lot of colors in my mind—when we’re rehearsing and when we’re onstage—that just kind of come out.”
These colors compensate for her deliberately monochromatic wardrobe, an odd and striking bit of sci-fi formalwear topped by her severe, anime-superhero hairdo. “I have bulks of white oxford shirts and black pants and saddle-oxfords in black and white. . . . I don’t own any colors in my closet,” she explains. “I got tired of—colors. I feel more centered when I’m in black and white. I feel more focused. All the colors come out in my work, in my voice, in my movement. And, sometimes, I don’t feel centered when I’m onstage. I feel extremely flamboyant. It’s a uniform. It works very well for me. I have too many things to focus on—like being an artist, you know?”
Not really. But that sense of awe and disorientation is central to Monáe’s onstage command, and will hopefully power the next two Metropolis suites, tentatively set for a one-disc fall release, though uncertainty and delays are unavoidable these days—just ask Big Boi. “Tightrope” is worth the wait, though. Until then, she’s free to insert herself into more bizarre live situations: Regaling a dumbstruck Jones Beach Theater full of No Doubt fans must have been fun this past weekend, but a few months back, she had an even tougher gig, warming the stage for Of Montreal, one of the most anarchically flamboyant stage acts around, with deranged frontman Kevin Barnes leading a circus of costumes, nudity, acrobatic depravity, and occasional equine cameo spectaculars. “I think the one thing that caught me was when Kevin had come out at a New York show on a white stallion, naked,” Monáe recalls, fondly, clearly recognizing a kindred spirit in terms of both a love of horses and relentless audio-visual audacity. “And when I seen that, I said, ‘Oh, OK, he’s crazy. He’s crazy like meeeeeeeee.“
Janelle Monáe performs as part of the Afro-Punk Festival July 6