Live: Janelle Monae at the Black Cat, DC

Janelle Monae’s mothership landed last week in DC, bringing space-age soul to a sold-out crowd at the Black Cat. The Grammy-nominated singer, on tour now through April, didn’t just put on a show. She gave us an experience. Sort of like a Warhol Factory happening – meets – Alice in Wonderland, set in a strange distant future in a galaxy far, far away.

Fans were drawn into the futuristic fantasy world the second they walked in. Perched at the door of the Black Cat’s Mainstage were members of Monae’s crew handing out flyers outlining her Ten Droid Commandments. They included such directives as:

If you see your neighbor jamming harder than you, covet his or her jam.

Be aware that jamming means: no tweeting without clapping, no sex without screaming and no freedom without dancing.

Abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture and gravity.

Early on, another one of her acolytes, mysteriously dressed in an all-black robe, came out to instruct us all to prepare “to find new emotion this evening.” This ratcheted up the anticipation of the super-hyped audience even more, leading to claps, boos, and chants of “Start the show!” (For the record: according to Black Cat staff everything was right on time. Plus, you never rush a diva.)

Just when the crowd couldn’t take it any longer, Janelle Monae finally arrived, making a dramatic entrance to a Star Wars-esque overture. Flanked by a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist, she bounded onstage and quickly launched into rapping about decoys and bboys while electronic squiggles, bleeps, and loops played behind.

She was decked out of course in her signature Cindi Mayweather pompadour, white schoolgirl blouse, black tuxedo pants, and saddle shoes. The whole band rocked her famous monochromatic look, including a cast of masked cybergirls and cyberboys who cavorted onstage behind her, occasionally throwing balloons and streamers into the audience.

From the party atmosphere onstage to her otherworldly image, every single part of Monae’s act was carefully constructed and brilliantly imagined. To say she kept things conceptual would be an understatement. We weren’t just listening to songs on a setlist. We were watching a narrative unfold. Any weirder and it would have become performance art. Any more theatrical, it would have been an opera.

Monae left the crowd spellbound as she conjured up a world of daydreamers, cold wars, and cyborgs in love. Blazing through new material from her upcoming album The ArchAndroid, she strutted, swayed, moonwalked, and spazzed her way through the night, serving up a whirlwind of hip-hop, new wave, and technicolor pop.

While most of the songs were unrecognizable (sorry, no “Many Moons,” “Violet Stars” or Purple Ribbon joints), she did treat longtime fans to “Sincerely, Jane” from 2007’s Metropolis. She also broke out a reworked version of her latest single “Tightrope,” turning it into a slow-burning groove and ending the song with an extended James Brown-inspired funk freakout (cape and all).

She closed out the night by leaping into the audience and crowdsurfing her way through the Black Cat, disappearing into a sea of outstretched hands and screaming fans. There was no encore, no goodbye or good night. Just like that Janelle Monae was gone. Beamed back to her home planet I suppose, set in a strange distant future in a galaxy far, far away.

Photos by Jati Lindsay