Science fiction frequently portends an apocalyptic end of days brought on when computers take over the world. With the heartbeat of humanity fading in the rearview, it’s the type of grim vision that brings us Skynet and androids lowering themselves into vats of molten steel.
But then comes that thumbs up from Arnold’s robot, and you can begin to imagine that maybe the future isn’t totally doomed if these droids can process their own version of empathy. Enter superhuman Janelle Monae, an artist who once constructed the alter ego of an android, Cindi Mayweather, under a protective facade comprised of ones and zeroes. She existed without giving intimate details of her personal life. But on Thursday night at the Greek Theater, this was Monae version 2.0, armed with her new glimmering pop gem LP, Dirty Computer.
In 2018, with axioms getting turned on their heads, it’s looking like the humans are more threatening than the machines. And if Dirty Computer imagines some sort of future state, goddamn it’s a fun one. Monae’s new album is a canvas for a self-liberation that was in full effect at the Greek.
The performance was to the gills with song and dance moments executed with a perfectionist’s eye (and ear) for detail. Thick bass notes were met with subtle shoulder shrugs, sideways glances underscored confident bombast; it was microcosmic ad hoc choreography. Monae sang standing, with backup dancers, and while sitting on a throne. She covered the entire geography of the stage, at times even barefoot.
Her wickedly entertaining brew is multidimensional. If you aren’t familiar with Janelle Monae, it’s hard to imagine art taking on the establishment with the type of whimsy that comes with backup dancers firing water guns into the crowd (during “Screwed”) – this as she casually contemplated sex and power dynamics with her lyrics. She operates in such absolute control that it becomes mesmerizing. The lines between moments of homages to departed legends, peak wokeness, and not taking it too seriously (all the while taking it very seriously) become smeared into one joyful, danceable, important blur.
Even when turning the clock back for a trio of older tunes, the soul-funk reckoning blazed on. In 2013 stomper Q.U.E.E.N., she kept it light: “You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly / And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie,” she sang out, then turned her back to the house, lifted the tails of her black and white patent leather jacket, and made an honest lyric of it.
“Electric Lady” flaunted trombone, communal claps and a barrage of moves executed in unison with her dancers; except when Monae nonchalantly slipped a bit of timely moonwalking around the line, “She can fly you straight to the moon or the ghettos.”
“Primetime” slowed things down for a beat, only to accelerate into a shreddy outro and then seamlessly transcend into the fist-pumping outro of “Purple Rain.” They went for our collective heart’s jugular without shame, and it worked.
In returning to the black magic of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae unveiled two of the catchiest songs of recent memory, “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel.” The former is a perfect pop concoction for this moment of empowerment, spiked with proud eroticism and vaginal worship. The latter started with a backlit Janelle Monae at the top of a small pyramid at center stage.
Throughout the extended electro-percussive intro, her sly movements atop the structure defied gravity and sense, her limbs appearing to have the extra joints only an android could possess. Though the track is drenched in Prince DNA, the total command over her performance reprogrammed the song as her own creation.
Not all nods were so overt. “I Got The Juice” had an unforeseen synthesized strain of Gloria Estefan hidden in its fabric. “Tightrope” harkened back a couple extra decades for James Brown feels; horns out front, and Monae finally accessing her highest register while falling to her knees. Only the cape was missing.
But in the encore, it appeared. She returned to rally the crowd to “choose freedom over fear,” and then perform “So Afraid,” with the light blue, yellow and pink pansexual pride flag draped across her shoulders. When she removed the flag to reveal red, sparkly, epaulets on her shoulders, it was the birth of yet a new identity; futuristic soldier of the resistance.
The finale was the battle cry “Americans.” When it broke open, the song playfully followed the melodic lead of Madonna’s “Vogue” into a wide open field of self-affirmation. For this coming out party, it was a pitch-perfect ending.
So is Janelle Monae human? Dirty computer? With the singularity nigh, does it really matter? She is a shapeshifter, a young master and a woman that must be seen to be believed.
Crazy, Classic, Life
Take A Byte
Primetime (Purple Rain)
I Like That
Don’t Judge Me
Make Me Feel
I Got The Juice