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Live Review: Janelle Monae at the Lincoln Theatre

October 15, 2013

0057Janelle Monae has set her debut EP and two subsequent albums in the year 2719, where her alter ego Cindi Mayweather is on the run from the Metropolis police. But like George Orwell’s, Monae’s vision of the future is really set in 1984. That’s the year that Michael Jackson and Prince battled for supremacy of the pop-music world.

In her show at Washington’s Lincoln Theatre Monday night, Monae did two covers: Jackson’s “I Want You Back” and Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” These choices reflected not only Monae’s influences but also her ambition. She could growl and squeal like her heroes; she could spin, stutter-step and moonwalk like them as well. She had the killer songs and buckets of on-stage charisma. She too wants to battle for pop supremacy.

She just may get it. Her September album, Electric Lady, is one of the year’s best, and Monday’s show was a theatrical wonder. The singer’s signature black-and-white fashion design extended to her band members and set: the vinyl flooring and backing curtains were all in white; the drums and keyboards were all-white; the male musicians were dressed in white, while the two female singer/dancers wore black-and-white mini-dresses, black tights and white boots. Monae herself, her trademark ball of hair bobbing above her forehead, wore a white shirt with black suspenders and tight white slacks with black boots and a black belt.

During the instrumental overture, a hospital orderly wheeled in Monae on a hand truck, as if she were Hannibal Lecter. She soon burst out of her straitjacket and burst into her first song: her collaboration with Prince on the new album, “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love.” She didn’t need Prince to sell it live, belting out the chorus and twirling on the guitar breaks.

She did “Sincerely, Jane” from her 2008 EP Metropolis and “Cold War,” “Tightrope” and “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” from the 2010 LP The Archandroid. The best songs, though, were the newest. The long version of “Electric Lady” was filled with horn riffs, a rap break, a go-go music breakdown into chants and congas and an unprompted audience sing-along. “Dance Apocalyptic” boasted choreography to justify its title, and the encore version of “Primetime” sounded like the best R&B ballad in years.

In the opening set, Roman GianArthur played stripped-down pop-funk with a guitar-bass-drums trio. GianArthur, who plays on Monae’s records and is a charter member of her Wondaland Arts Society, was impressive in his update of Prince and Stevie Wonder, much like the unjustly overlooked Van Hunt.