Concert Review: Janelle Monáe — As a Performer, The Real Deal
By Paul Robicheau
Janelle Monáe’s an impressive singer and capable rapper but she is indeed phenomenal as a performer, showing keen attention to the craft.
Janelle Monáe knows how to make an entrance. At MGM Music Hall at Fenway on Sunday, the singer/actress arose in silhouette to “Float” down an arc of stairs in a blooming flowered cape that she shed (if keeping the floral crown and boots) to join dancers in a prancing, booty-wagging, literally toasting “Champagne Shit,” the self-loving “Phenomenal,” and the pose-striking Afrobeat boast “Haute.” And that was just the show’s first chapter, culled from her new album The Age of Pleasure.
The rest of Monáe’s near-two-hour concert rarely surpassed the visual pop of that opening salvo, but it mostly equaled it in terms of unwavering energy as well as serving as a heartfelt shout-out to her proudly diverse fan base. “That’s what the age of pleasure is about, using your space to create something special and magical for the people around you,” she told the packed crowd, speaking against racism, sexism, and anti-LQBTQ views. “We’re not responding to hate. We’re responding to love.”
That love was manifested in Sunday’s tour-de-force. One might argue that Monáe is a better actress (Glass Onion, Hidden Figures) than recording artist, or at least songwriter. The Age of Pleasure doesn’t counter that view with its slickly produced, stylized strut, although the new songs exuded an organic power via her seven-piece live band, which included a three-woman horn section. Monáe’s an impressive singer and capable rapper but she is indeed phenomenal as a performer, showing keen attention to the craft (and nodding to Prince and Michael Jackson in the process). At MGM, she proved a methodical yet passionate dynamo yet again, this latest tour deserving to enter conversations considering the shows of the year.
Monáe began Sunday’s second chapter under the visage of a red moon (MGM’s high, wide stage is perfect for full-scale productions like this), rapping and singing through “Django Jane,” the outsider anthem “Q.U.E.E.N” and “Electric Lady,” a high point because Monáe finally flashed her chops as a vocalist. She did the same to lift up the new song “Lipstick Lover.” Monáe and her four dancers sported oversized, frayed, and floppy straw hats as they moved to the song’s lilting island groove.
Like the opening female rap duo Flyana Boss, Monáe invited several fans onstage to dance entertainingly to the new “Paid to Pleasure.” And she and her dancers held their own frisky romp through “Pynk,” a wink at female genitalia in the color of the inner folds in their puffy pants — as well as a headpiece that Monáe even stuck her hand through.
Alas, weak spots emerged in the sound mix near the set’s end. Monáe’s voice was washed out rather than dialed in for her chanteuse moment in “Only Have Eyes 42,” her take on that doo-wop standard, and heavy bass marred “I Like That.”
The encore made amends, first with her shuffle-stepping homage to Jackson (in a sparkling black hat and shoes with white socks) and then her clipped chords on electric guitar to launch the Prince-like “Make Me Feel,” her catchiest number, from 2018’s Dirty Computer.
With thanks to her “special” Boston audience, Monáe dove into her 2010 debut album The ArchAndroid for the wound-up “Tightrope” — falling to her knees for someone to drape her floral cape, in a nod to James Brown — and “Come Alive” (The War of the Roses).” For that finale, Monáe climbed over the barricade to stride to the middle of the floor and lead fans in call-and-response volleys.
For a performer who once presented herself as a mysterious android alter-ego, she has confidently opened herself up to the human touch. An entrance can cast an enticing first impression, but Janelle Monáe also knows how to seal the real deal.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.