With Roman GianArthur
Fillmore Miami Beach
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Better Than: James Brown reincarnated as a woman.
Janelle Monáe's set began with four roadies dressed in matching white pants, lab coats, bowties, and glasses clustered in front of the stage, seeming to be in the middle of an important conversation. Three of the men disappeared and the remaining "scientist" introduced himself as Dr. Marlo Mindbender. He hyped the crowd about a patient he would be releasing.
"Some of you look afraid, as you should be. Tonight, Janelle Monáe has come to fuck you up."
Monáe, a Kansas City-raised, Atlanta-based neo-soul singer, belongs to the school of Andre 3000 and CeeLo Green. Her performances are equal parts church sermon, art-school project, and r&b, funk, and science fiction rave up.
Meanwhile, her uniform of androgynous pant suits (which could find her work at a caterer) and distinctive fauxhawk/pompadour hairstyle has developed a legion of imitators of both genders and all ages, many of whom were in attendance on Saturday night at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
The evening's backing band members -- a guitarist, bassist, horn section, two drummers, keyboard player, and two backup singers -- all dressed in matching black and white might seem like overkill to some. But Monáe, as evidenced by her entrance, is a performer who appreciates spectacle.
With the band already jamming, Dr. Minbender wheeled her in on a dolly, immobilized bya straitjacket, as if she were Hannibal Lecter. It was the only time during the 90-minute set when she was not in movement.
From the first song, "Givin Em What They Love," Monáe was a petite powder keg in a constant state of explosion: high-fiving the crowd, egging them on, and owning every corner of the stage.
We here at Crossfade have racked our brains, trying to think of another female singer who leads such a massive band while keeping all the attention on herself.
Monáe's influences seem to lean mostly toward male soul and R&B singers, from her choice of covers in Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" (during which she channeled the voice of a 10-year-old Michael) to her homage to James Brown (when Dr. Mindbender kneeled down to place a cape on her back) to the Cab Calloway-esque fashion in which she led the crowd in a call-and-response routine at the end of her first of two encores.
"La, la, la, la, la, la, la." She would sing and, in gratitude, the crowd sang it back. "La, la, la, la, la, la, la."
So Monáe kept it going, over and over, stretching the las to the limit. "La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la." And still she received every la back. But that was only the beginning of her exhaustively extended rendition of "Tightrope."
She told the audience to get down. Not the dance kind of get down, but squat. After a second, people started feeling silly and began standing. She gave us a schoolmarm scold, "Get back down." Everyone laughed as they did what they were told.
Monáe got down off the stage and sang amid the crowd as the drummers kept the beat.
Again, people got back to standing. But then she told us, "When I get back on the stage, I need everyone down." Damn, if we didn't do as we were told. And as the song neared its end, she found faith in the crowd and allowed her fans to support her in perhaps the most graceful crowdsurfing we have ever witnessed.
The hardest working woman in show business made it look easy.
Janelle Monáe's Setlist
-"Givin Em What They Love"
-"I Want You Back" (Jackson 5 cover)
-"Let's Go Crazy" (Prince cover)
-"Come Alive (The War of the Roses)"
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-"What an Experience"