Concert review: Janelle Monáe | 09.13.23, Stifel Theatre

Photo of Janelle Monae by Mason Rose, courtesy of Atlantic Records

w/ Flyana Boss

“No, I’m not the same. No, I’m not the same. I think I done changed.”

Is this a realization or an affirmation? Is she talking to us or herself? That crucial word “think”—I think I done changed—seems to betray an inkling of doubt.

Janelle Monáe’s most recent album—and the theme for her current tour, The Age of Pleasure—is a departure from the ‘alien from outer space’ lore that I love about her work. But we know she dreams of the “Crazy, Classic, Life” she describes in Dirty Computer: “Young, black, wild, and free/ Naked on a limousine … I just wanna party hard/ Sex in the swimming pool/ I don’t need a lot of cash/ I just wanna break the rules.” And she’s entitled to it. With the creative output she’s been pouring into the universe over the years, she certainly deserves it. So, yes, it’s different… but I still want this for her. We’re here for it!

I don’t think the audience is the issue here, though. I don’t know if she can let herself do it.

I described the album to a friend as Monáe’s “sexy money party album.” At first listen, it seemed focused on indulgence, a celebration of the carnal and the freedom that being rich and fabulous can buy you. After seeing her perform essentially the entire album, I’m wondering if it’s not more aspirational than true enjoyment. She wants so badly to be different, to be changed. But for once, it’s not freedom to be herself she’s yearning for—it’s freedom to step away, to embrace that life of indulgence, and I’m just not convinced she can allow herself this particular kind of freedom

The set began with the first track on the album: “Float.” The song opens with the abovementioned self-affirmation—“No, I’m not the same”—and leads to a dreamy earworm of a melodic chorus: “I don’t step/ I don’t walk/ I don’t dance/ I just float.” Heralded by trombones, Monáe floated onstage over the top of a staircase designed to frame her entry and exit from each of five “acts” in the setlist. Covered with silk flowers from the crown on her head to the toes of her boots, she was a vision of springtime and rebirth. With an all-female brass section in booty shorts on her right, a percussionist, drummer, and keyboardist on her left, a squad of four dancers flanking her at the foot of the stairs, and a video screen background, she occupied all the space to create her tropical vacation vibe.

The first five songs of the evening were the first five songs on the album, in order. She told us how extravagant she can be when she’s on her “Champagne Shit.” She told us how “Phenomenal” and “fine as fuck” she feels. She told us about being “Haute” and sexy as she flexed and danced and vogued in a high-cut leotard. But hard as we tried to dance and sing along with her, she seemed unsatisfied with the vibe. She did a lot of coaching the audience. “Come on, let me hear you, St. Louis!” She explained to us several times that we should treat this moment like it’s the only thing that matters—We are not looking to the past or the future. We are here now! Let’s enjoy each other’s company in this moment! This is a celebration!

I was worried the St. Louis crowd was disappointing her. It felt less a spontaneous, joyful ‘sing along with me’ and more a ‘you’re not giving me enough to feed on’ type of encouragement. She sounded tired. She seemed sad we weren’t carrying the lyrics as much as she had hoped. She was trying to bring us on vacation with her, and we just weren’t meeting her needs. And so concluded Act I.  

Act II, however, opened with a completely different vibe. Monáe cut a striking profile in a military-style coat with powerful shoulder pads and a fez as she appeared at the top of the staircase, with a full moon projected at her back and the flowers moved from her head to her lapel. Now, we had “Django Jane,” and the audience knew every damn word she was singing. We shouted along with “Jane Bond, never Jane Doe/ And I Django, never Sambo,” and suddenly she had nothing to worry about. We were all right there with her, celebrating the incredible accomplishments of the hero Janelle Monáe and her rise from “Straight out of Kansas City” to “Prolly get a Emmy dedicated to the/ Highly melanated.” She gave us a whole Act II of beloved past material—“Q.U.E.E.N.” and a rendition of the anthemic “Electric Lady” that got everyone bellowing along with her elegant vocal trills. Because we fell in love with her vision of the future and her bold explanation of how the past and present dictate us arriving there.

Starting with her 2008 debut, Metropolis, Monáe has crafted multiple albums around the tale of the cyborg savior, Cindi Mayweather. She authored a collection of Black Mirror-like short stories in her book The Memory Librarian, depicting her vision of creating a utopian clique in a dystopian future (which is excellent, by the way, and I recommended it any time I get the chance). The Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter, Critics’ Choice-nominated actor, outspoken social activist, and budding sci-fi author has given us so much inspiration over the whirlwind past few years of creativity and productivity.

Perhaps the world is full of too much inspiration for one who views the world through sci-fi futuristic glasses. It must be draining, always being looked to for a statement or a stance, a position or an insight. From Metropolis through 2018’s Dirty Computer, she’s worked so hard to show us that being an oddball in a rigid social structure is a good thing. But maybe a girl gets tired of being an oddball! Maybe she gets tired of overthinking, overanalyzing, responsibility, and wisdom. Maybe she just wants to get out of her head and into her body, to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

Act III brought three more tracks from the new album along with Monáe wearing the most ginormous straw hat you’ve ever seen. Images of billboards promoted Pleasure Pleasure Pleasure in the background as she bounced along to the Caribbean rhythm of “Lipstick Lover” and the slippery, spicy hedonism of “Water Slide.”

Act IV featured “Pynk,” complete with the fluffy, ruffly vagina costumes from the music video and some fancy footwork from Monáe, as well as “Yoga,” her 2015 call to get out of your thoughts and into your body, connecting mind to breath and being in the present moment, but in a sexy way. Both Acts were fun, but it felt like neither the performer nor the audience were really getting what they hoped for from the exchange. That is, until the end of the show neared and Monáe seemed to finally bring us all together in the present moment with her in a way that felt more natural and less efforted.

Act V began with “Only Have Eyes 42,” but I got chills when the first chords of “I Like That” followed. By the time she reached the chorus, the entire Stifel Theatre was declaring along with her, “I like that/ And I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one who like that.” It summoned that defiant spirit we could all agree on—from society, from your own overworked mind—and led to the dancing that ultimately brought us all together.

She said she knew just the thing to help her connect with us and pulled about eight folks of varying genders, colors, forms, and fashions onto the stage to groove and grind with her for a final set that included “Make Me Feel” and “Tightrope.” (Hat-tip to the opening act, Flyana Boss, who were perfectly adorable in their BFF tag team rapping and just the right amount of racy self-awareness, with their songs about liking big bank accounts and big bananas. They brought a pair of singers from the audience to sing their last song with them—or tried to, as they struggled to find a pathway from the theater floor to backstage. One singer made her way up, but they jumped into the audience to hand the mic to the last one. Just delightful.)

After dancing with her onstage companions, Monáe told us how St. Louis holds a special place in her heart. As a fellow Midwesterner (originally from Kansas City), she knows all too well the struggle of being perceived as a social deviant, layered on top of life as a racial minority. She thanked us for supporting her across all her eras, from Metropolis to The ArchAndroid to The Electric Lady to Dirty Computer to today, and launched into the menacing and energizing “Come Alive,” from that first album. From there, she took it to the next level and launched into the audience, crawling over rows of chairs lining the theater to be amongst her people. Security probably hated it, but we loved her for it.

Between each Act throughout the night was a caption and a theme projected on the back screen. Sometimes we got video clips of Monáe on vacation, looking gorgeously serene in a half-shirt and blonde braids, lounging, swimming, dancing, alone and with others, looking carefree and relaxed. I would love to revisit the captions in the context of the full set, knowing now where each Act was going and relating the song selections to the framing she presented. The one that stood out to me was—


Janelle Monáe wants liberation from being the voice, the champion, the “random minor note you hear in major songs” (one of my all-time favorite lyrics ever). Relentlessly swimming upstream will wear you down. She wants The Age of Pleasure so badly, and she truly deserves it. But I got the impression that, even more than she wants The Age of Pleasure, what she really wants is to really want it, and to be satisfied with that life.

She can put out whatever music she wants—and I am here for it—but I hope she finds her off switch. We have learned so much in the last decade about the importance of self-care, and she has given us so much encouragement for self-acceptance. I hope she is giving herself a break to fully move between the worlds she navigates so seamlessly in sound but maybe struggles to embrace in her heart. I hope she’s not just preaching to us but truly practicing it herself. | Courtney Dowdall

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