All you need to know about the future of R&B is that it’s contained within the petite, delicate frame of one Janelle Monáe.
Though she be small of stature, her voice and her spirit are inversely proportional to their earthly confines. I seriously think she may be carrying around her magic in that glorious natural mane of hers. The pompadour alone adds a good four inches of height.
Monáe performed a sold-out show at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., Monday, and another at Liv nightclub Tuesday night. She’s on tour promoting her latest album, “The Electric Lady.”
Her star couldn’t be rising at a better time. The CoverGirl represents newness and individuality for a generation of Electric Ladies who, at best, remain invisible, or at worst, still find themselves unfairly characterized in media.
When it comes to black women, the music business seems bent on reducing us to a never-ending stream of blonde, straight-haired Beyoncé facsimiles. (See: Ciara, Keri Hilson, Leona Lewis, the latest iteration of Tamar Braxton.) Beyoncé is undoubtedly fabulous in her own right, but there’s a reason for that: she’s Beyoncé. Heaven forbid the majority of music executives discover there’s another way to sell an R&B artist besides chasing the latest trend.
Enter Monáe. Her entire look (modern-day Lena Horne doppelganger clad in meticulously-tailored black-and-white menswear) serves as a reminder that black women are vast. We contain multitudes, and don’t you forget it.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman,” Monae said in a 2010 interview with i09.com. “I don’t believe in men’s wear or women’s wear, I just like what I like. And I think we should just be respected for being an individual…. I’ve been in Vogue, now, and different publications, which is cool, because I think that it just shows a different perspective of how women can dress.”
Monáe’s sartorial proclivities aren’t the only thing that set her apart. She’s an unapologetic fan of science fiction, and she’s incorporated it into her albums, which tell the story of her android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, and her adventures through Metropolis. Monáe’s quirks could easily delve into shtick, but the evidence of her myriad inspirations (Prince, Judy Garland, Octavia Butler, and Michael Jackson, for starters) reveals itself throughout “Electric Lady.”
Monáe, like Solange Knowles, Frank Ocean, and Esperanza Spalding, is redefining what it means to be an R&B singer. Prince, Knowles, and Spalding all make appearances on the album. She’s taking the genre to new, weird, Fritz Lang-inspired heights. She has become an avatar for the sort of black woman it’s nearly impossible to find in mainstream culture. Monáe doesn’t just defy stereotypes. She obliterates them.
When you attend a Janelle Monáe show, you are given a list of the 10 android commandments, the last of which warns you that any children conceived within 48 hours may be born with wings.
“The Wondaland Arts Society will not be held liable for this phenomenon or be responsible for parenting or providing for your flying children,” it reads.
It seems oddly grandiose, but by the time you exit, you think, “Okay. I see how that might be a possibility….”
Oddities aside, her fans, and I count myself among them, love her because she represents being comfortable in your own skin. She is the embodiment of the How-To-Be-Black generation. There are no instructions; simply
1) Be black.
2) Be yourself.
She has picked up the torch from Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, India Arie, Kelis, and Res, and she’s running with it, creating her own world in the process.
I don’t think Monáe, 27, fully realizes her own power yet, but she will.
Badu, who also appears on “Electric Lady,” has had decades to craft and hone a powerful, magnetic stage presence. When she performs, she effortlessly luxuriates in the pleasure of being a black woman. She owns it. She loves it, and what’s more, she makes you love it, too.
Monáe is already creating that experience for another generation of black women, and it only stands to get richer.
There was a moment during Monday’s performance where this tiny woman, half android/half amazing, was dancing so hard her trademark pompadour came loose. Her hair flopped about as she continued bopping around the stage, otherwise flawless. She was taking Lincoln Theatre to church.
She quickly pinned it back, but midway through the next song, it flopped out again, because that’s what hair does when you’re working hard. In that moment, she was a fly black girl from Kansas City, having a good time, just as real as any of us.
Congratulations, Ms. Monáe. You are the droid we’ve been looking for.