Music review: Janelle Monáe at the Black Cat

GENRE-DEFYING: Monáe.
GENRE-DEFYING: Monáe. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the past, singer Janelle Monáe has seemed overwhelmed by quirk: her fabulous pompadour, an obsession with aliens, a robot alter ego. At times all of that zaniness threatened to overshadow her fine work, like that of her otherworldly 2007 EP, "Metropolis: The Chase Suite."

But Monáe seems to have learned how to give off just enough weirdness -- more Erykah Badu, less late-career Lauryn Hill. At her sold-out show at the Black Cat on Monday, the Girl From Another Planet was far out and grounded -- and all points in between.

The show was the first date of a tour to promote her full-length debut, "The ArchAndroid," due in May from her own Wondaland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records. If the preview of the twisty, genre-spurning work is any indication, "The ArchAndroid" could be the best thing to bear a Bad Boy logo in ages. Note to Diddy: Less Gorilla Zoe, more of this.

Monáe and her band hit the stage wearing Grim Reaper cloaks, but quickly shed them and kicked off the show with the high-energy shriekfests "Dance or Die" and "Faster." The singer, who says her new album is inspired by everyone from Salvador Dalí and Stevie Wonder to Octavia Butler and David Bowie, tripped through the fuzzed-out "Mushrooms and Roses," a jam both psychedelic and psychotropic, and released balloons upon the dancing crowd during "Locked Inside." The audience was still batting them around by the time she showed off her vocal chops on "Wondaland," the sort of love song one would hear at an electro dance party held on a Candy Land board.

She paid homage to the Godfather of Soul by throwing on a cape and screaming "Ya gotta get up!" during "Tightrope," a serious funk workout that also conjured everything from the English Beat to "Stankonia"-era OutKast, and ended with "Sincerely, Jane" (from her EP), a crowd surf and some exaggerated Miss America-style waves. Strange, for sure, but by that point she'd earned it.

-- Sarah Godfrey


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