For years, Janelle Monáe played an androgynous android, all suits, saddle shoes and pompadours, tap-dancing across the soul-music spectrum with a heavy dose of Afrofuturism. But no matter how good her music was, the arm’s-length distance between Monáe’s art and her audience sold her short.
That was then, and the Monáe that astonished on Friday night at the Anthem is now.
Her current moment began earlier this year with a pair of hypercolored, hypersexual videos, reached a peak when she came out publicly as pansexual, and culminated with “Dirty Computer,” an album that is proudly black, female and queer. Monáe’s age of artifice was over, or, as she sings on “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “I just have to tell the truth, baby.”
Monáe’s truth is bold and unapologetic, as is her stage show. She sang and rapped as pitch-perfectly as she does on the album, and she was as animated as her Betty Boop eyes, throwing black-power fists, getting frisky with the bedazzled mic stand and torquing and twerking across the stage.
She didn’t have to do much to amp up the audience members, who — whether upscale or down home or out loud — were living their best lives and were ready to receive Monáe’s art like Communion. As expected, her sermon was about sex, politics, self-love and mental health. It was about her own journey, as she rapped “Remember when they told you I was too black for ya?” and “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?” And while she didn’t rebuke the president by name, lyrics such as “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back” spoke loud and clear. Even lyrics from 2010 — “This is a cold war / Do you know what you’re fighting for?” — seemed especially topical.
Monáe still runs the soul-music spectrum, with the swaggering P-Funk of “Q.U.E.E.N.” and the trap-reggae of 2015 single “Yoga.” The influence of her mentor Prince looms large, both on the slinky “Make Me Feel” and “Americans,” basically Monáe’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” But she also proves she can do swaying power ballads with “PrimeTime” and delicate electro-pop with “Pynk.”
On the latter, a paean to the female body, she donned the oversize ruffled “labia leggings” she wore in the song’s video as her dancers split the difference between Georgia O’Keeffe and a Robert Palmer video. As the song’s video played behind her, the crowd popped whenever Tessa Thompson, Monáe’s rumored girlfriend, was on-screen. Later, the crowd grew even louder, as a handful of #blessed fans got to show off their dance moves onstage. One fan was a young deaf woman, accompanied by an interpreter, who received plenty of hand-waving (the applause of deaf culture) from the crowd, another reminder that Monáe’s show is for everyone.
Monáe’s self-love has helped her self-actualize. Not only is her music more vital than ever, but she has broken any last barriers between artist, art and audience. She spoke to the joyous, communal spirit of the night on encore closer “Americans,” sending a message to a country that has — more often than not — refused to love women, people of color and the queer community. “Just love me, baby,” Monáe sang, “love me for who I am.”