On the eve of an Independence Day soundtracked by the constant refrain that there wasn’t much worth celebrating about America this year, Janelle Monáe’s chorus of patriotic dissent rang out like bombs bursting in air.
Her wardrobe of red, white, and black outfits so fantastical, funky, and militaristic she looked like a part of Dr. Seuss’s Rhythm Nation, Monáe gracefully commanded the stage at the sold-out State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for 100 minutes on Tuesday night, implicitly asking the timely if not necessarily fashionable question: What does it mean to be an American artist in 2018?
Like so many pop visionaries before her, the reach of Monáe’s ambition has sometimes exceeded her grasp. But just as recent events have clarified our ideas of potential dystopia, she’s refined her Afrofuturist prophecies, tautened her funk, sharpened her metaphors, and acquired a whole mess of astonishing new hats. Fists rose in defiance, ladycrotches thrust with pride, booties did as booties do, and the 32-year-old R&B futurist drew upon the deep rhythmic, spiritual, and philosophical resources of the African-American musical tradition to create an array of playful, sexy, battle cries for the long war ahead.
After an already impressive decade as a recording artist (paused for a few years while she became a movie star), Monáe is still growing as an artist. On her first two albums, she explored her blackness and (then-undisclosed) queerness from a cool distance, translating it into a proggy android mythology of her alter ego Cindi Mayweather. But earlier this year she came out as “pansexual” in Rolling Stone, and, just in time for pleasure to become revolutionary again, she committed to a fleshier and friskier vision on rebellion on her third album, Dirty Computer.
The lights came up on a stage setting that was vaguely but not elaborately futuristic as a five-piece band vamped through the mood-setting title track. (The two synth players would later switch to trumpet and trombone when the music called for it.) While a recording of Pastor Sean McMillan intoned a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, Monáe appeared at the top of the stage in a red and white pleather jacket and black cap, with red and white boots over checkered tights, a black and white braid dangling behind her with a hoop at the end. Her truth was self-evident.
Monáe performed the first five tracks of Dirty Computer in order, with few pauses, and she’d go on to play the full album, its demands for pleasure often articulated as political statements. “I am not the American nightmare,” she sang on “Crazy, Classic, Life.” “I am the American dream.” With “Screwed,” she channelled an erotic charge into resistance (“You fuck the world up now/We’ll fuck it back down again”) while wringing insight out of the Freud for Dummies slogan “Everything is sex/ Except sex which is power.”
As “Screwed” ended, her dancers (whose own fanciful outfits ranged from paramilitary jackets to denim booty shorts to “Highly Melanated” T-shirts) became Janelle’s valets, holding a mirror for their queen to admire herself in. She traded her jacket for a checkered tailcoat and ascended to a throne upstage to rap “Django Jane,” its assertive autobiographical sweep carrying us from her working class Kansas City roots to Atlanta and the Oscars, rising to a litany of contributions from women and African-Americans bestowed upon an ungrateful nation. “Q.U.E.E.N.” could only come next.
As expected, Monáe paid tribute to Prince, dedicating the show to the artist who collaborated with her, mentored her, and never missed a show when she was in town. “This place means something so special to me,” she said after “Electric Lady,” giving a nod to “our hero, Prince. Always and forever.” And after Monáe finished singing “PrimeTime” and left the stage, the slow burning ballad segued seamlessly into the coda to “Purple Rain,” with guitarist Kellindo Parker taking its solo. I’ve heard countless touring acts cover that anthem in the past two years, but never in a context where it felt less forced.
If Monáe learned from Prince how to channel a wide-ranging sexuality into a form of spiritual exploration, he’s hardly the only elder she’s studied. At times her mission seems nothing less than to synthesize everything she’s learned from her R&B predecessors: from George Clinton, that funk is an unclassifiable life force locked in an eternal struggle with tired-ass conformity and oppression; from Stevie Wonder, that liberation comes from exerting your full capacity to love; from James Brown, that a transcendent freedom comes from submitting to your own idiosyncratic regimen of baroque self-discipline.
And she wasn’t shy about citing her sources. The synth riff to Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” snuck into the close of “Take a Byte”; “Screwed” climaxed with a chant of “Say it loud! I’m dirty, I’m proud!” And she returned to James Brown’s groove by breaking into a bit of “I Got the Feelin’” at the close of “Make Me Feel,” which was itself a fusion of Minneapolis sounds, suggesting Janet Jackson cheating on Jam and Lewis with Prince.
Monáe also evokes the style of her influences through her dancing. During an extended introduction to “Make Me Feel,” she performed a silhouetted showcase of her best moves, suggesting Michael, Janet, and Prince in a single routine. For “Electric Lady” she moonwalked and wriggled her fingers as though releasing bolts of electricity into the air. And her closing number, “Tightrope,” was her version of James Brown collapsing theatrically to close an Apollo show, as she fell to her knees, impassioned, microphone stand bent forward.
Monáe never came across as an imitator, though, because what her fans responded to immediately has only deepened with success: her core sense of self. She frequently concealed the most expressive eyes in popular music today behind fashionable shades all the more to dazzle us when they emerged. For “Pynk,” her legs were encased in cartoonishly oversized bloomers that transformed her full lower half into a bow-legged vagina, though in fact that song celebrates every tender human part, from the inner eyelid to the fold of the brain. “I wrote this song for those of us who’ve been told we’re weird...interesting,” she said to start the misfit’s anthem “I Like That,” and song after song expressed the idea of radical self-love as a form of protest.
Monáe brought the political implications of her party jams into sharper focus while introducing “Cold War.” “Over the years, we’ve protested together,” she said to the crowd. “And we continue to fight.” She listed the various groups—LGBTQ, women, minorities, the poor, immigrants—whose rights needed to be defended, before concluding “We’ll keep marching till every child is back with their family.” She then threw herself into the frenzied rocker “Cold War,” its central question—“Do you know what you’re fighting for?”—sounding more pressing than ever.
She took an even firmer stand during her encore. “Forgiveness can be a tough thing to do,” she said. “Especially when it comes to our country.” She introduced “So Afraid” with the declaration “We choose freedom over fear,” then, as a fluorescent flag behind her changed colors behind her, sang “Americans.” With each chorus of “I'm not crazy, baby, naw/I'm American” she reminded us that just about anything worth celebrating about our culture was created by those who honored American ideals despite the oppression of the cruel simpletons in power.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of Janelle Monáe at the State
Crazy, Classic, Life
Take a Byte
I Like That
Don't Judge Me
Make Me Feel
I Got the Juice