Janelle Monae — the 27-year-old dynamo with big hair and bigger lungs — likes making big entrances. So, on Monday night at the Lincoln Theatre, she had herself wheeled out on a hand truck, where her handlers loosened the straps of her straitjacket and let her run wild like some renegade Bride of Funkenstein.
Clever stunt. Smart metaphor. As she tore through 90-plus minutes of riveting R&B, Monae proved that she has James Brown’s legs, Little Richard’s pompadour and a voice that can channel the Pixies, the Jacksons, Cab Calloway, Parliament-Funkadelic, OutKast, Grace Jones, Tina Turner and Prince.
Versatility oozes from her new album, “The Electric Lady,” but Monae still seems a long way from producing a record that captures the breath-stealing physicality of her live show. On Monday night, the woman could not be contained, her arms shooting out of her body like lightning bolts, her heart pumping 5-hour Energy, her hairdo refusing to droop. The show was garnished with campy costumes and sci-fi props, but the real spectacle was Monae’s body darting and jerking across the stage, never losing breath, never missing a beat. There’s simply no one doing this better right now. Not Bruno Mars. Not Beyoncé. Nobody.
Her precision bordered on surgical during “Primetime,” a gusting ballad from “The Electric Lady” that would only qualify as a lull at a show this wow-wow-wow. As her guitarist prepared to float off into a Prince-induced solo, Monae sneezed twice — in time with the rhythm.
Even tighter: Her note-for-note cover of “I Want You Back,” where the singer squeezed her voice into the shape and timbre of an 10-year-old boy’s. She wasn’t taking ownership of the indelible Jackson 5 hit so much as proving that this might be the closest we’ll get to hearing the real thing.
Her nine-piece backing band — which included two locomotive percussionists who matched the energy of Monae’s every footfall — closely followed the singer’s lead. But too many sonic details were lost in the soupy acoustics of the Lincoln, the 91-year-old U Street theater being operated by I.M.P., the folks who own the neighboring 9:30 Club.
Despite changes in the box office, the venue still doesn’t suit high-decibel performances very well — a sad fact that was most evident in the theater’s balcony seating, where the music went murky and fans stood on armrests for a better view.
But if anyone can Hail Mary a song to the back row, it’s a singer like Monae, whose voice swung from pillowy to blustery and back again. She sang in whispers during a vast and vampy read of “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” hushing her rapt crowd, hopping off the lip of the stage, and then tiptoeing up and down the aisles of the Lincoln, as if hoping not to be detected.
That might have been the evening’s most intimate moment, but the most striking came during “Cold War,” a song that palpitates at a tempo even more manic than OutKast’s “B.O.B.” Monae introduced it with an affirmation: “No matter who you love, no matter what you look like, no matter what religion you serve, you gotta love yourself.”
Esteem-boosting anthems have long been the stock-in-trade of A-list pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but Monae’s seemed like a political statement about clinging to individuality in an era when protest is often stifled from above or defused on the ground.
“This is a cold war / You better know what you’re fighting for,” she belted, stretching out the words “cold” and “war,” suggesting her struggle has lingered longer than first expected.
Amid all the frenzied dance steps and fantastic escapism, her protest felt characteristically exact.