COLUMBUS OHIO -- Monae recently performed at the Schottenstein Center Arena in Columbus as the opening act for pop star Katy Perry’s California Dreams Tour. Unlike some opening acts that performed to prerecorded tracks, Monae was backed by a full band that even included a string section.
By CHRIS BOURNEA
Take a generous helping of Outkast, throw in a dash of Grace Jones and a smattering of Anita Baker, blend well and you’ve got Janelle Monae – or something resembling her, since the talented young singer could never fit into a recipe or any other mold, for that matter.
Monae recently performed at the Schottenstein Center Arena in Columbus as the opening act for pop star Katy Perry’s California Dreams Tour. Unlike some opening acts that performed to prerecorded tracks, Monae was backed by a full band that even included a string section.
The best way to describe Monae is that she’s eclectic, combining R&B, hip hop, jazz, rock and other musical styles. In addition to the above-mentioned legends, Monae also seems highly influenced by Prince, who also defies categorization and effortlessly combines numerous musical styles. It made perfect sense that Monae was one of the artists selected for the musical tribute to Prince last year when he received a lifetime achievement honor at the BET Awards. Monae’s version of “Let’s Go Crazy” captured the combustible energy of the rock tune that was the opening number for the “Purple Rain” movie.
While Prince may be an influence, Monae seems more interested in channeling Michael Jackson onstage. She put her spin on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” sounding just like a young Michael. She also crooned the bittersweet ballad “Smile,” which Michael Jackson recorded on his 1995 “HIStory” album and which his brother Jermaine performed at his 2009 memorial service.
When singing slower songs like “Smile,” Monae displays an impressive vocal range. Her voice has jazz inflections reminiscent of Anita Baker. Monae, in fact, resembles a young Anita Baker, but is much more experimental and avant garde than the more conventional R&B diva ever was.
Monae showed off her unique style throughout her set at the Schottenstein Center, executing jerky dance moves and jumping around the stage in her trademark tuxedo as she sang. The Outkast influence is especially noticeable when she dances, bringing to mind Andre 3000 in Outkast’s “Hey Ya” video and other hits from their heyday in the early to mid-2000s.
The nearly sold-out crowd seemed receptive to Monae, which is not surprising since her offbeat sensibility was a fitting introduction to Perry’s somewhat quirky, if more mainstream, style. When Monae performed the upbeat “Tightrope,” which was showcased on “American Idol” last season, the audience danced and sang along.
At one point, Monae engaged the audience in a sing-along to the lyrics of “It’s Not Fair,” having them repeat the refrain “la la la,” scatting like Cab Calloway and his trademark “hi de hi de hi” from “Minnie the Moocher.” Toward the end of her set, she ventured out into the audience and made a lap around the arena floor with her backup dancers.
Whether Monae will be able to attract a large enough fan base to sustain a long-term career remains to be seen. But she certainly deserves props for originality.