Setting the Stage: Grey skies and balmy rain hugged Chicago on Thursday evening, giving the downtown area a mildly apocalyptic wash. Or rather, an appropriate monochrome backdrop for the dizzying spectacle of fans that crowded around the sold-out Chicago Theatre. Janelle Monáe had returned, her first proper performance since 2014’s Taste of Chicago appearance, and the excitement was downright contagious.
Shades of pinks and purples ricocheted over the sidewalk outside the theatre as fans posed for selfies under the iconic marquee. There were smiles. There was hugging. There was genuine joy on the concrete. Almost immediately, you got the sense that this wasn’t just an opportunity to see a favorite artist, but a chance to feel united … to belong. That love and unity is paramount to Monáe’s Dirty Computer Tour.
Taking the Stage: Following a bouncy and sensual opening set by Atlanta R&B duo St. Beauty — who must feel like the Revolution at the beginning of Purple Rain every night (though, hardly as rivalrous, seeing how they took a seat front and center to watch their Wondaland boss shortly after) — the Q.U.E.E.N. finally arrived to the sounds of her Brian Wilson-backed title track. As expected, Monáe embraced a few theatrical elements, rolling out in a gurney in conjunction with the music video playing on screens behind her.
Again, nothing revelatory for an artist who came to prominence using imagery from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But with the Dirty Computer Tour, you get the sense that Monáe is operating on a radically more comfortable level, concerning herself less with sci-fi imagery and slinking into her own influences and political beliefs. Granted, this came to light with her prior album, The Electric Lady, but the pastiches and motifs now feel less indebted and more in line with her own personal brand. There’s Prince, there’s Michael Jackson, there’s James Brown, but it’s all Janelle.
That One Song: What’s great about having the year’s best album is that Monáe has the agency to play the whole thing — and she did. Even more impressive was how she unwrapped the album in near-sequential order, a wise choice given that the Dirty Computer selections played stronger than any of her past hits, from “Electric Lady” to “Cold War” to “Tightrope”. In fact, the night’s hardest-hitting moments came from a triptych of new cuts, specifically “Screwed”, “Pynk”, and “Make Me Feel”.
Out of those three, “Screwed” saw Monáe get into a groove she didn’t want to end, and every time that chorus hit, you could feel the historic building age just a little more. Though, if we’re going by purely spectacle, it’s hard to beat her wardrobe for “Pynk”, which was a pair of labia slacks that seemed to command her line of dancers in a rather comical way. This writer also appreciated how she went full Dangerous on “Make Me Feel”, teasing the song for a good minute and a half with shadow dancing.
We’ve Got the Juice: Crowd participation is often the worst (see: Green Day), but with Monáe, it felt appropriate. All throughout the night, she had been treating the crowd like a united, rag-tag family, saying things like, “You’ve been ostracized for embracing the things that make you unique” or “This entire experience is rooted in love. You guys got to understand how I live to love…” So, when she brought up a number of fans to dance with her on “I Got the Juice” — or rather, prompted them to show her their juice — it hardly felt pandering. If anything, it gave the incredibly diverse crowd a chance to see how her music makes everyone feel: alive.
Quoteworthy: “This feels like a community of people that really care, that really wanna make this world a better place despite our differences. I just want to remind you to take care of you. Mental health is important. Depression is real. Love yourself. Don’t be too hard on your self. We’re in this together. We’re not alone. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay not to have all the answers.”
Crazy, Classic, Life
Take a Byte
PrimeTime (w/ “Purple Rain by Prince outro)
I Like That
Don’t Judge Me
Make Me Feel (w/ “I Got the Feelin'” by James Brown snippet)
I Got the Juice