Perched at the top of a stark white staircase, her shiny black, red and white outfit and cap making her look like the world’s coolest train conductor, Janelle Monae burst into “Crazy, Classic, Life.”
Between her gleaming smile and expressive doe eyes, it was evident from these opening moments that Monae was genuinely excited to be back in the city “where I was made,” as she later expressed.
At the first of her two-night stand at the Tabernacle, Monae played provocateur, funk-soul princess and open-hearted social justice warrior with equal success.
“No matter how you love or who you love, you’re welcome here tonight,” she told the sold-out crowd, a melting pot of age, sex and race that welcomed the Kansas-native-turned-Atlantan with the type of hyperventilating usually reserved for Beyonce.
For nearly two hours, Monae canvassed the stage, a taut five-piece band behind her and four female dancers frequently surrounding her, as she rolled through three albums of material and even snuck in quick references to her mentor, Prince (the guitar solo during “Prime Time” that swerved into “Purple Rain” and the raspberry beret Monae sported on “Pynk”).
Monae performed a significant portion of her current album, “Dirty Computer” - easily one of the most notable releases of the year – but didn’t neglect her history (though the quirky “Yoga” could have been swapped for “Dance Apocalyptic” with no complaints here).
While the first handful of tunes (“Take a Byte,” the middle finger anthem, “Screwed”) was buried under a muddled mix, by the time she spun into a long coat suitable for the throne she sank into for “Django Jane,” Monae’s vocals arrived at their rightful place – the spotlight.
Her rapping is as fluid as her loose-limbed dance moves, and the DNA of Outkast is as prevalent in her work as the influences of James Brown and Michael Jackson.
Though she’s always been an intoxicating performer, this show felt different, as if Monae’s recent revelations about her own sexuality and her visceral lyrics on “Dirty Computer” have liberated even one of music’s most independent, if guarded, voices.
Her dancers gyrated in unison as Monae led the crowd in a chant-along of the sinewy “Q.U.E.E.N.,” swayed through the delectable “Electric Lady” and engaged suggestively with a backup dancer doing “Yoga.”
For a brief moment during the show, the ceaselessly energetic Monae finally sat down as if on a brownstone stoop to emote through “Don’t Judge Me” as placid ocean scenes played on the three video screens hanging behind the stage.
Breather over, Monae barely paused the rest of the night, flittering her fingers in between rubber-ankle dance moves – like Michael Jackson performing a James Bond theme – at the start of “Make Me Feel,” the Prince-iest of her songs, and wailing through the frenzied rock of “Cold War.”
Her glorious, horn-infused “Tightrope,” which should be the national anthem of 2000s-era funk, is always a show highlight, and Monae spiked the song with gorgeous vocal runs in between her stage skittering and band directing.
Monae’s authenticity has never been in question. She could probably be selling out arenas if she opted to exchange her artistry for more easily digestible pabulum. But Monae’s vision has always guided her and this time, to a truly impressive place.