Having exploded onto the music scene with an exceedingly bold concept album swathed in sci-fi mythology, and nestling into a unique gray area between neo-soul, funk, and art-rock, it’s obvious Janelle Monáe isn’t afraid to push the envelope. Her live show, like her sensational long player and its slightly more modest predecessor, is told vicariously through Cindi Mayweather, a nuts-and-bolts messiah travelling through time to save an android civilization and spread a message of love and unity. Even if one chose to ignore the evening’s geek-chic context, as I’m sure many of this sold-out O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire audience did, the Atlanta-born songstress managed to offer an interminably absorbing show with a performance that belonged on a far bigger stage.
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV) was naturally well represented, its staggering opening salvo performed in sequence to kick off the show. Three hooded figures began bopping to the bassline of “Dance or Die,” with Monáe bursting out of the rightmost cloak before stampeding through a belligerent rendition of her verses. And just as easily as she filled the shoes of a boisterous MC, she transformed into a matinee crooner for “Faster” and an electrifying performance of “Locked Inside.” In this sequentially faithful reproduction of The ArchAndroid’s first act, Monáe and her dexterous live band somehow brought an even larger degree of vim and vigor to the material without compromising its über-polished atmosphere. Monáe sounded absolutely incredible, hitting any note she pleased with the utmost of ease even during body-pops, booty-shakes, and, less routinely, simulated epileptic seizures.
The six-strong band were also technically on song, especially lead guitarist Kellindo Parker, who did some feral noodling before settling into one of the set’s more intimate moments. A tender cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile” was delivered with the lights dimmed to a suitably hushed crowd, many of whom commenting on the goosebumps induced by Monáe’s towering vocals—though there was perhaps a smidgen too much indulgent warbling at times. “Oh, Maker” was very much in the same vein, a tender number that the singer dominated with another breathtaking vocal performance.
Judging by the almost universal sense of surprise that greeted “Smile,” despite its inclusion as a bonus track on Metropolis: The Chase Suite, and then the collective frenzy during “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” there may have been a few members of the Shepherd’s Bush capacity crowd holding out for The ArchAndroid’s more accessible singles. But if these weren’t fans with an extensive knowledge of Cindi Mayweather and her century-hopping struggle for the emancipation of a robot race, they may well have been converted by this set despite its rather stunted duration. The singles felt like bonuses, and for many, the joys of the evening were found in warming to album tracks like “Wondaland” or in discovering sleeper hits from her first EP like “Sincerely, Jane.” The latter saw Monáe reunited with her cloaked friends from earlier in the evening, mimicking zombies as the singer wailed, “Are we really living or just walking dead now?”
During the encore, an awkward interpretation of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” pleased the crowd simply on the basis of it being a Beatles song, but it was the most stagnant moment of the night. Was this not followed by a raucous rendition of “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” where the guitars went up to 11 and the pint-sized singer shook the perfectly formed quiff she’d been sporting for the last hour, you might have even thought she was out of energy. This absurdly dynamic curtain call proved otherwise, though, and underlined Monáe’s eye for the theatric and her ear for a dizzying mixture of genres. And while it’s unclear whether Cindi Mayweather actually managed to save the day, there is certainly no disputing that Monáe provided an absolutely outstanding evening.