Review by Andrea Whiting
Walking up The Viper Room stairs last Tuesday I somehow took a wrong turn and fell up a rabbit hole, straight into the post-apocalyptic cyber punk world of Janelle Monae.
In this world, James Brown is still alive and kickin', cold hipster sidekicks have been replaced with boppin' Urkel doppelgangers, and soul is expertly emulated by the soul-less: androids, robots, cyborgs, and other intergalactic songbirds.
And in this world, Janelle reigns supreme as pomped-out alien queen, belting some curious combination of straight-up funk and futuristic dancepunk.
Sheathed in dark hooded robes, Janelle and company opened the show against the backdrop of some poorly-executed, power-pointish video projections. Annoying technology and “grim reaper” gimmick out of the way, Janelle proceeded to power through a new track which showed off her hip hop prowess. She busts rhymes like, well, Busta Rhymes, mimicking his sharp flow and staccato dance moves from “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”
You might not expect such heavy-hitting from a tiny black chick dressed like a dude from some B-list Motown band. On her first EP, Janelle claims to be an alien from outer space, but really she's just a lost, completely gorgeous Marvelette who probably listened to too much David Bowie growing up.
That Grammy-nominated 2008 EP, titled Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase, was originally part one of a concept opera in which Janelle's android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, was forced out of commission for falling in love with a human. Her new album, due out May 18, will combine parts two and three of the planned opera, turning Cindi into a slave-redeeming ArchAndroid in the year 2719.
Early in the show, Janelle played an absolutely fantastic single off The ArchAndroid. “Cold War” starts out with eerie Kraftwerk synth, quickly adding in lightning punk drums, and showing off the guitarist's fast and furious skills (he looks like the Indian dude from “Chuck,” which only adds to his awesomeness.) Janelle jumped up and down like any good twenty-something who grew up listening to The Ramones, and while her signature faux-hawk survived the abuse, The (tiny) Viper Room couldn't handle that big soul voice. Give this girl The Hollywood Bowl and you'll hear her voice reverberate through the entire city.
The show also featured some dancers in masquerade gear, some sort of metallic Cleopatra-era snake headband, Devo sunglasses, the resurgence of those monk capes, and plenty of Bride of Frankenstein influence (her seizing dance moves, that vertical hair, those determined and precisely-posed stares into space.)
The girl is brilliant, but I'm not sure anyone knows what to do with her quite yet: she's not as dramatic as Lady Gaga, not as easy to categorize as Beyonce's little sister trying to be a hipster, and probably more talented than both.
If didn't catch her second show at The Viper Room last night, download “Tightrope” immediately. The other single off her new album, it's a tightly-produced funk hit sans cyber punk motif, and features Big Boi but sounds even funkier than OutKast's “Hey Ya!” Alright, alright, alright?