LIVE REVIEW: Janelle Monae @ Cargo, London

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I can’t for the life of me remember how I first came across Janelle Monae. She appeared on several Outkast affiliated projects in ’05 but I don’t think I paid much attention to them – it was her EP that caught my ear a few years ago. Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase was a strong but short set of seven fusions of rock, pop, soul and funk, quietly introducing this flawless voice, unique songwriter and theatrical performer to the world.

I say ‘quietly’ because it took quite a while for ‘the world’ to catch on. Last year, Hip Hop mogul P. Diddy signed Monae to Bad Boy Records (in conjuction with her own Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society label). Naming Monae as “one of the most important signings of my career,” Diddy introduced her to the Bad Boy roster as “the kind of artist that changes the game. She is a true visionary, with an original sound and a mesmerizing presence.”

Years after being introduced to this promising new artist, we were finally able to decide for ourselves at her debut London performance – on Wednesday 4th November, 2009.

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Right up until around 11pm we milled around the main room of Cargo, waiting. The venue was, disappointingly, two thirds empty at best. This could be attributed to other events going on in town that night –  Sa-Ra were funking it up at Benji B’s monthly club night around the corner whilst Jay-Z roc-ed the masses at Alexandra Palace. Whilst both other gigs were tempting to a similar audience, it was most likely the unusually unfriendly £35 charge at the door that had the place so desolate.

Nonetheless, the mood was patient and willing – a core unit of fans, bloggers and the curious. Finally, the host took to the stage to introduce Ms. Monae and shortly afterwards the air was pierced with a striking and familiar voice.

“Ah ah ah I’m an alien from outer space! I’m a cyber girl without a face, a heart or a mind…”

Janelle Monae hit the stage with her band launching into album standout, “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” Throughout an electrified set, Monae performed most of the songs from her EP – all of them as vibrant and engaging live as they are in your earphones – from “Many Moons” and “Sincerely Jane” to her cover version of “Smile” [click to watch]. It was in particular her performance of “Smile” – still, elevated, pure – that illustrated Monae’s ability to exude emotion on the strength of her voice alone. It proved that the dramatics – the outfits, the styling, the pouncing – aren’t actually needed to capture and keep your attention. Consider them a bonus.

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Monae’s show was 45 minutes of dramatic, beautiful lunacy. From her eccentric movements across the stage with her startling facial expressions, to waving a big paintbrush smothered with dripping red paint at the audience before painting a… Well, I don’t know what she painted. Something that initially resembled someone’s rear end, then possibly trees, or leaves, that eventually became something I only recall as a flurried mass of green and red and blue and yellow which was thrown startlingly into the crowd towards the end of the show.

They say Janelle Monae was initially headed for a career in Broadway before deciding that music was the path for her, and having now seen her live I concur she certainly has all the essential qualities for keeping a crowd entertained.

True to Diddy’s 2008 proclamations, several members of the crowd could be heard discussing “one of the most amazing artists” they’ve seen in a long time as they headed home. Indeed, despite all the planning and deliberation that must go into her onstage theatrics, there was still no sense of cliche or gimmick manufacturing.

At her first ever performance in London, Janelle Monae showed herself to be the essence of showmanship. My only disappointment with the show is being one of thirty or so people to see it. Someone give her a push out here, please?

Janelle Monae online – Official Website / Twitter / MySpace

Reviewed by Marsha Gosho Oakes
Photography by Tamar Nussbacher

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