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For Janelle Monáe, the Future Is Now

Monday at the Armory, the heady star's ambition and visual flair made for a funky good time.

4:40 PM CDT on September 12, 2023

Kamaya Atterberry

You gotta be a pretty analytical motherfucker to make a concept album about enjoying yourself and then calling it The Age of Pleasure. But Janelle Monáe has been thinking her way into sexual liberation for nearly 15 years now. Her albums have progressed from queer-coded Afrofuturism through politically defiant out-and-proud sexuality and now, at last, to basking in physical gratification for its own sake.

But if her recordings have made the journey to sensual self-expression feel hard won, live performance has always been Monáe’s shortcut to satisfaction. As she reminded us for about an hour and a half at the Armory in Minneapolis last night, giving and receiving pleasure has always come easy to her onstage. 

Monáe is not someone who makes an entrance without fanfare—in this case, quite literally. The first two musicians on stage last night were a trumpeter and trombonist who faced each other and blew as the other band members entered between them. As the horns were joined by lush keyboard strings, Monáe herself emerged, lit above by a golden beam and singing “Float,” the opening track from her latest album, about her newfound existential buoyancy. The star was smothered in a huge, rotund dress made of flowers—a more elaborate, fully realized variation of the Midsommar-inspired getup she wore to open the Oscars in 2020. (*Jay Leno voice* What, was the float she sang about part of the Rose Parade?) 

This proceeded, as on the album, into “Champagne Shit,” with Monáe’s dancers toasting her as she stripped down to a thigh-flaunting outfit with a jacket on top, a large rose on its lapel, though floral leg warmers and a crown of flowers remained. The show was divided into “chapters,” their titles projected on a screen; these didn’t so much advance an overarching plot as act as guard rails for an artist who seems to feel naked without a concept. For five songs, the first of these strictly followed The Age of Pleasure’s track listing (she’d programmed the album that way for a reason, after all) and expressed a strutting bravado that with Monáe never feels too conceited because she works so damn hard to earn it. With her band, horns and all, projected through a concert hall sound system, tracks like “Phenomenal,” which give you the option of dancing as recordings, grabbed your damn hips live and didn’t let go. 

For the second chapter, a more martial Monáe returned to the stage, in red pillbox beret and dark shades, sitting cross-legged on an upstage throne like the queen of the Black Panthers. She launched into the ferociously autobiographical ”Django Jane,” a rap “Dedicated/To the highly melanated,” and several fans around me joined in, word for word. This segment concluded with the title track of her second full-length,The Electric Lady, complete with an anatomically appropriate flourish when she boasted that “the booty don’t lie.” It was a powerful stretch of music, but it also felt like a part of her work she’d passed beyond.

We then transitioned into what Monáe called the “vacation” portion of the evening with a 16mm home-movie-style film of her cavorting about with her dancers in bikinis. We were once again in The Age of Pleasure. Musically, that album shakes off the Princefluence that made Dirty Computer a major advance for her, settling instead into a changeable pan-African groove that takes in Nigerian Afrobeat (note the singular form and think Fela, not Burna Boy) along with a fluid reggae that came to the fore during this chapter. Never settling for anything less than the fantastical, Monáe wore a vacationers’ straw hat with an impossibly huge brim.

This was the heart of the performance. Before “Know Better,” we were asked to put our hands in the air if we knew we were sexy. (Alas, I was too busy taking notes to comply.) Monáe then brought a passel of dancers up from the audience, though even here she didn’t act without deliberation—Monáe took her time selecting them. And her close eye paid off, as they left it all on the stage, especially this one woman with long dyed blonde braids. “We do everything that feels good to us,” Monáe, who never tires of translating her pleasure into maxims, told the assembled dancers.

Dirty Computer did not get its own “chapter” but its songs provided some of the night’s high points. Monáe huddled with her dancers and displayed some of that robotic vogueing she excels at for “Pynk,” the playful celebration of tongues, brains, vaginas, and other folds of flesh that she originally originally recorded with Grimes. (2018 was pretty long ago in some ways.) For “Yoga” she was joined by opener Jidenna, the Wisconsin-born, Nigerian-bred singer known best for his suave hit “Classic Man.” 

(A quick digression about openers: Jidenna came on stage before Monáe’s set, at around 9:30 p.m., spoke for a bit, and then announced that he didn’t have time to perform because the night was behind schedule already. At least we’d gotten to see Flyana Boss. If you suspected their viral hit “You Wish”—source of that “Hello Christ, I’m about to sin again” sound you’ve surely heard on TikTok—was the duo’s only trick, well, they also led the crowd in a “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong that then zeroed in on a sample of Freddy Mercury exclaiming “mamma mia” for a rap about a mama’s boy. They scoffed at being called “industry plants,” insisting that “for a whole year, we posted content every day.” Once upon a time “paying your dues” meant busting your ass on tour; now it means being always online.)  

But back to the show. When last we left her, Monáe was in the home stretch of her main set with the poly anthem “I Only Have Eyes 42.” (That’s “four two,” not “forty-two.”) She closed with a genuinely stirring speech about love and inclusion to “all the free motherfuckers out there tonight,” then ended with Dirty Computer’s “I Like That,” a sexual individualist’s statement of purpose. “We love unapologetically," she declared, and extended this invitation: “If you’re here with someone you’ve never kissed in public, now is the time.” 

The encore was the opportunity for Monáe to credit her influences. She reappeared in silhouette upstage, wearing a black suit and broad-brimmed hat, moving in sharp spasms that owed Michael Jackson while the spare beat that she responded to was indebted to Prince—“Erotic City,” specifically. The rhythm track blossomed into Dirty Computer’s “Make You Feel,” as Princely a jam as she’s ever recorded, during which she grabbed a guitar to pluck out some funk chording, and detoured into James Brown’s “I Got a Feeling.” 

It followed naturally then when she dedicated the show to Prince, a Monáe fan who worked closely with her in his last years, saying that “he never let his mystery get in the way of his mentorship.” She then spoke about the concert generally: “It’s about community. It’s about a safe space for us.” And she (jokingly? hm, maybe not) lamented the lack of "titties" (her word, a gentleman like myself would never), saying sadly “I didn’t see any nipples tonight.” Monáe, who’s been freeing the nip aplenty herself recently, limited herself to one quick tease where she lifted her shirt boobward but never followed through with the flash. 

I first saw Monáe 13 years ago at First Ave, opening for drama club indie pranksters Of Montreal (such were the times), at a moment when the word “androgynous,” with its sense of fixed genders that could be blurred, didn’t yet seem fully like a relic of a previous century. She’d just released her debut, The Archandroid, which was, well, a little arch, its sci-fi narrative conceptually substituting for what she couldn’t yet fully express musically. Monáe was then performing in what Twitter snarkers call her “Mr. Peanut” outfit: puffed hair, saddle shoes, black-and-white suit, and an occasional dark cape. 

Those Afrofuturistic metaphors may have been ideal for a fanbase who, like its avatar, was working through their sexuality, but they also seemed like a way of thinking about identity rather than living it. It’s the 21st century, and we all know what queer people and Black people and queer Black people are talking about when they talk about androids. In 2018, the Dirty Computer tour came to the Orpheum, and gone were references to her cyborg alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, in place of a fully asserted self. The time for metaphors is over, the pointedly political Dirty Computer tour seemed to announce.

And now, with its insistence on experiencing the moment, comes The Age of Pleasure. This is obviously no time to be running a victory lap for queerness in America, as Monáe well knows. But it's when the battle's far from over that you need to pace yourself, to create an oasis of temporary fulfillment to sustain you.

Monáe’s early single “Tightrope” closes her encore in other cities, serving as an excuse for her to really lose herself in dance. But that’s not where our show ended. There was still time for an off-the-rails “Let’s Go Crazy” that was maybe a mite stronger on spirit than it was on execution (Monáe seemed to muff the words at one point), but Monáe’s perfectionism can use a little shaking up sometimes, and it was good—hell, great—to hear a touring musician celebrate Prince without resorting to ye olde “Purple Rain.” Anyway, Monáe had already played that one last tour.

“See you in the future,” the star said to end the night, placing a knowing emphasis on the final three words. But in fact, Janelle Monáe has never seemed more fully present.

Setlist

Float
Champagne Shit
Black Sugar Beach
Phenomenal
Haute
Django Jane
Q.U.E.E.N.
Electric Lady
Lipstick Lover
Water Slide
Know Better
Paid in Pleasure
Screwed (Snippet)
Pynk
Yoga (with Jidenna)
Only Have Eyes 42
I Like That

Encore
Make Me Feel
Tightrope
Let's Go Crazy (Prince cover)

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