(Janelle Monae at the Varsity Theater / Photo by Rohan Preston for Star Tribune)
I saw the future and the past of R&B in one night in the Twin Cities.
On Wednesday, Melanie Fiona, who already has earned a Grammy nomination and enjoyed a No. 1 R&B hit for nine weeks, gave a cameo performance for 100 industry invitees at Seven in downtown Minneapolis, and a couple hours later, Janelle Monáe, a protege of P. Diddy and OutKast who is about to drop her debut full-length album on May 18, gave an unforgettable performance for a couple hundred hipsters — and Prince — at the Varsity Theater.
First, Fiona. The 26-year-old from Toronto came across like the daughter of Cher and Tina Turner. In her 30 minutes onstage, this classic soul singer displayed plenty of personality, a strong if inconsistent voice and a command of the stage. Her smash ballad “It Kills Me” lacked the sexyness of its video, but Fiona still made it work. “Ay Yo” was an island-flavored anthem that connected with the crowd. Fiona, who exuded star quality, impressed most on the retro pop “Johnny.”
Just about everything about Monáe impressed. Coming across like the daughter of Grace Jones and Sharon Jones, the high-haired 24-year-old from Atlanta delivered a high-concept, high-energy performance of ambitious, dramatic, cinematic, futuristic electro-funk alt-R&B, with a little mock classical tossed in. Backed by two dancers and a tight three-man band (including a rock-noise guitarist who looks like Andre 3000 but is really Maceo Parker’s son), Monáe tore it for 75 minutes.
Previewing her cinematic CD “The ArchAndroid” (which features Big Boi, Of Montreal, Saul Williams and others), she opened with a long suite that suggested OutKast in its adventurous experimentalism. At first, it seemed hard to determine where OutKast ended and Monáe began. (She appeared on OutKast’s “Idlewild.”) However, before too long, her visionary postmodern mashup became clear as she blended elements of funk, hip-hop, Broadway, mock-classical, syncopated electronica and James Bond-like cinematic music. By the time she got to “Tightrope,” her current single, she became a female James Brown in overdrive — without the sweat.
While the first half was often thrilling, the second half was mostly terrific. The way that Monáe commanded the stage with her vision, energy and style (high hair, pouffy shoulder pads, two-tone asymmetrical eyeglasses), it was easy to overlook the fact that her voice was sometimes a little thin and occasionally shrill.
Can’t wait to hear her album. Can’t wait to see her in concert again. She is the most exciting R&B performer to come along since Sharon Jones and the most intriguing new artist since Adele.
Janelle Monae set list:
Overture II/ Dance or Die/ Faster/ Locked Inside/ Say You’ll Go/ Make the Bus/ Wonderland/ Sir Green Down/ Cold War/ Tightrope/ Mushrooms & Roses/ Sincerely Jane/Violet Stars Happy Hunting/ Many Moons


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