Over the past decade, she’s played to half-full rooms and slogged her way through opening sets in front of distracted crowds. She’s dreamed up ambitious, larger-than-life stage presentations and crammed them into the wings of tiny clubs. After years of paying her dues — and taking a hiatus from performing music to become a full-fledged movie star — Janelle Monae returned to Minneapolis on Tuesday night to finally get the kind of sold-out, electrified, adoring reception that an artist of her caliber deserves.
It was overwhelming, really, to watch Monae appear at the top of a tiered pedestal amidst a cloud of smoke and screams and throttle her way through her first song, like her elevation to another creative plane was happening before our very eyes.
Maybe that’s why I spent most of the nearly two-hour performance with a knot in my throat, unsure whether to laugh, dance, or cry. Or maybe it’s because the show came with the realization that for the first time in her nine years of coming through Minneapolis on tour, this show would not be attended by Prince, one of her biggest mentors and admirers. It felt deeply poetic that the absence of the omnipresent purple VIP guest, who could typically be spotted lingering in a balcony nodding along to her songs (or, in one particularly unforgettable moment at the Skyway Theater, waving his diamond-studded cane in the air), occurred at the exact moment when Monae seemed to ascend to new levels as an artist and performer. It was as if a torch had been passed, and she used that torch to light the whole stage on fire.
“There’s so much love in here tonight. This place means something so special to me,” Monae said, pausing after “Electric Lady” to offer a rare unscripted interaction with the crowd. “Our hero, Prince. Always and forever. This experience is deeply rooted in love.”
She could have gone on to say a lot more about their musical, creative, and personal connections, but in hindsight it would have been too much. Instead, she let her performance itself stand as her tribute to Prince, channeling his influence and the spirit of so many other funk and R&B titans — James Brown, George Clinton, Michael and Janet Jackson, Beyoncé — into a presentation that felt wholly original and blissfully free of any expectations or artistic restraints.
Freedom is a major theme in Monae’s work, dating back to her ArchAndroid period, but she had never appeared so present and joyful on stage as she did Tuesday night. Her new album, Dirty Computer, celebrates her newfound sexual liberation, and in the live setting that translated to a polished performance that was frequently interrupted by playful crotch-grabbing, middle fingers in the air, and even a few swigs from a bottle of pink wine as she sang the introspective “Don’t Judge Me.”
You know that moment in the beginning of Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Finn pops his Storm Trooper helmet off for the first time and the realization sinks in that there are sweaty, imperfect human beings underneath all that glossy armor? That’s sort of what it felt like to see Monae, who has built her entire aesthetic on robotic imagery and military-precision movements, stop in the middle of a dance move to giggle gleefully to herself and express her love for “all the free-ass motherf***ers” in the room.
Sure, there was the outro of “Purple Rain” tacked onto the end of “PrimeTime” (played flawlessly by Monae’s longtime guitarist and collaborator, Kellindo Parker), but maybe the real tribute to Prince is that Monae’s found a way to be a “free-ass motherf***er” — to unapologetically express her sexual, social, and political freedom, and to use her platform to tirelessly advocate for the marginalized voices who have been silenced. Forget all the comparisons between “Kiss” and “Make Me Feel”; it was hard not to see traces of Prince’s own “America” and “Sign o’ the Times” in songs like the impassioned encore performance of “So Afraid” and “Americans,” and “1999” in the apocalyptic party anthem “Screwed.” In a time of so much animosity and fear, to hear an out, queer black woman celebrate self-love and declare that she is “not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream” felt truly radical, urgent, and necessary.
After pouring so much of herself out on stage — and somehow dancing nonstop for two hours in a rotating selection of long sleeves, layers, and hats — Monae ended the encore by climbing to the top of the staircase one more time, each wobbly step looking like it might be her last, and crashing down onto her knees to bring the house down with one more soulful wail. Standing up to salute the audience, she smiled, let the tsunami of crowd adoration wash over her, and sweetly said, “And we dedicate this show to Prince.”
Janelle Monae Set List:
Crazy, Classic, Life
Take a Byte (with “(Not Just) Knee Deep” outro)
Screwed (with “Say It Loud” outro)
PrimeTime (with “Purple Rain” outro)
I Like That
Don’t Judge Me
Make Me Feel (with “I Got the Feelin'” outro)
I Got the Juice