- by Tim Sentz Rating: Release Date: Label:
I can’t think of too many artists who have had a better 2018 than Janelle Monáe. Hot on the heels of her critically acclaimed third album Dirty Computer, Monáe has climbed the ladder rapidly over the last 10 years since she started selling mixtapes out of the trunk of her car in Atlanta. She’s made the transition to movies (Oscar winners even), is often hailed for her unique fashion sense, and worked with her idol Prince to craft shimmering pop-rock fused with R&B, just like the Purple One did.
Her return to the Starlight on Saturday was highly anticipated, but faced major competition that weekend from Ed Sheeran, as well as potential malaise from the previous night’s Foo Fighters show at the Sprint Center. Couple that with the frigid temperature, and the future looked bleak for Monáe.
The “highly-melanated” one took to the stage via the title track from Dirty Computer (which features Brian Wilson) on a stretcher just like the accompanying film from the album release in April. From there, Monáe ripped through “Crazy, Classic, Life” with illuminating phones flashing throughout the crowd. Kansas City’s prodigal daughter had returned. KC’s no stranger to celebrities – Tech N9ne last year celebrated his return with a sold-out show at the Truman, their opening show. But Monáe’s presence feels different. Warmer. And despite the cold air briskly running through everyone’s hair, Janelle brought the power to Starlight. Her message of empowerment resonated with the crowd, and everyone sang along with “Screwed” before the wardrobe change.
“Django Jane” is one of Monáe’s most powerful statements on her new album. It acts as the centerpiece of the album, and features some of her most insightful and witty commentary, but also blisteringly honest. To see the KC crowd hang on every word, shout “Black Girl Magic, Y'all Can’t Stand It” in unison was a sight to behold. A strong representation of female pride, of LGBTQ pride, black pride, and just human being pride was the theme of the evening, and Monáe’s career as a whole. She switched it up after with a trio of singles from her second album The Electric Lady – “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Electric Lady” being the bangers, followed by “Primetime” that featured a Purple Rain tag. “Pynk” got one of the strongest reactions of the night – Monae completed her ensemble with her vagina pants from the music video and tight choreography for her Django Jane dancers. Monae was home, and she brought the strength that KC needed that night.
“Yoga” was a one-off single between albums that got a lot of people excited, but it was “I Like That” that made the audience rise-up again with its anti-bullying message and it’s easy to appreciate chorus. She took things down a notch with a bottle of wine in tow for “Don’t Judge Me,” which also featured one of the single best shots of the night – a wide-eyed Monáe sitting at the top of her staircase with stars all around, just glaring at the sky lovingly. Another wardrobe change later and Monáe stood at the top of her stairs with glittery pants and proceeded to tap dance to the intro to her song-of-the-year contender “Make Me Feel” before punching the crowd with the Prince-assisted cut.
So far it probably sounds like an ordinary evening for a Janelle Monáe concert. But then something totally random happened. It’s one of the weaker tracks in my opinion on Dirty Computer, but the version of “I Got the Juice” that night forever solidified it in my mind as Monáe pulled four KC crowd members on stage to dance. All representing different cultures, with the last one being her former music teacher from high school. Displaying such strong connection to the city set her apart from so many other artists who have come through our city. You can’t just keep saying “how are we doing out there (insert city)” and change it up every night. No, Monáe proved she was part of the culture in Kansas City, and that she’s adored by her hometown. The evening wrapped up with “Tightrope” from her first album The ArchAndroid, before she exited the stage. She returned for a speech endorsing Kansas candidates for Congress, then launched in the punk-rock infused “Come Alive” which saw her walk through the crowd and give hugs and high-fives to her family.
Tears were shed during this show. And I’ve been to a lot of shows, and I’ve seen artists walk through a crowd, and kiss babies, but the pride the audience took in Janelle that night was mesmerizing. Last year, I saw Kendrick Lamar at the Sprint Center, and the deafening cheers for him were ear-shattering. But the cheers for Janelle were more powerful. She’s not an icon to them, like Kendrick was to that crowd. Monáe’s a voice of hope, of love, and her message of hope resonates so strongly with people in 2018. It’d been five years since her last show in Kansas City, so her return was long overdue. But it was worth it. There were a few omissions from the night that were sorely missed – “Cold War” and “Americans” for example – but the show Monáe gave to her family was perfect. As displayed that night, Cyndi Merriweather can do just about anything these days – hell, she even moonwalked that night in a send up to another influence the late Michael Jackson. An excellent show to cap off an excellent year for one of the hottest artists out there right now.