Photo by Owen Sweeney/ Associated Press Invision
What is black and white and misread all over?
Janelle Monáe, the hard-to-peg rising soul star.
When she made her Twin Cities debut in 2010 at the Varsity Theater, it was hard to tell if she was an alien escaped from Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership or David Bowie’s android daughter raised on James Brown, Prince and Sun Ra. Whatever she was, she was wildly ambitious, a spellbinding dancer, captivating vocalist and deep-thinking conceptualist who was dramatic, cinematic and futuristic.
Touring to promote her just-released second album, “The Electric Lady,” Monáe was less conceptual and more straightforward Tuesday night at the jam-packed Skyway Theatre in Minneapolis — and just as exciting and dynamic. Maybe more so.
The 27-year-old, Kansas City-bred, Atlanta-based entertainer remains a visionary. Her stage was all decked out in white — including curtains forming three walls — except for black keyboards, black light rigging and a black-and-white bull’s-eye on the kick-drum head. Monáe herself was attired in white with black trim, her musicians in white with black bowties, and her backup singers in black-and-white striped mini-dresses.
The black/white motif is Monáe’s signature, but it’s also symbolic of the mix of races, religions and lifestyles that she speaks to through her lyrics, music and onstage patter. This time, the show wasn’t a far-out sci-fi tale about her being an android. At the Skyway, she was just being one funky, spunky, breathtaking R&B show-woman.
Sporting an exaggerated pompadour, Monáe knows how to make an entrance — in a straitjacket, delivered to center stage on a white two-wheeler. And she knows how to get funky when her limbs are liberated — charging through the hard-funk stomp “Givin’ Em What They Love” (a song from her new album that features Prince) and the percolating, horn-punctuated pop-funk “Dance Apocalyptic,” which included Purple-like slipping, sliding and swimming as Prince watched from the Skyway’s balcony.
Monáe’s musical palette featured shades of Sly Stone (“Electric Lady”), James Brown (“Tightrope”), Janet Jackson (“What an Experience”), Katy Perry (“PrimeTime”), the B-52’s (“Come Alive”) and OutKast (“Cold War”). With her seven musicians and two singers, she delivered a suitably fierce cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and a spot-on reading of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” because she can make her voice sound like a 10-year-old Michael Jackson. A versatile vocalist, she showed compelling power, though her voice was thin in a Janet Jackson kind of way.
Most of the tunes Tuesday came from “The Electric Lady,” whose other guests include Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding and Miguel. But Monáe’s most impactful moments came from her 2010 debut, “The ArchAndroid,” a one-two punch that began with the explosive funk-rock of “Cold War” — her most impassioned vocal, after an introduction about how you deserve compassion no matter your color, religion or whom you love — and then “Tightrope,” executed with all her hot-footing moves.
While the main set of 11 songs in 58 minutes was crisp and tightly choreographed, the encore was four free-wheeling songs that stretched to 45 minutes. Most striking was “Come Alive (The War of the Roses),” which started like new-wave funk with its “Rock Lobster” bass line and eventually evolved into Monáe weaving her spell over the 1,800 fans, getting them to sit on the floor and sing “la-la’s” in call and response — and then she crowd-surfed while blowing kisses, flashing peace signs and sporting a magnetic smile.
If that was one of the best exits in recent memory, Monáe also offered the best conceptual concert souvenir — “a jar of imagination” for $15. Of course, it was empty, waiting for you to fill it.
Here is Monae's set list from Tuesday:
Suite IV Electric Overture/ Givin Em What They Love/ Dance Apocalyptic/ Sincerely, Jane/ Q.U.E.E.N./ Electric Lady/ Victory/ Ghetto Woman/ I Want You Back (Jackson 5)/ Cold War/ Tightrope ENCORE PrimeTime/ Let's Go Crazy (Prince)/ Come Alive (War of the Roses)/ What an Experience