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Janelle Monae Delivers Spaztastic KCRW Set

By the time Janelle Monae had finished belting out ‘Tightrope’ during her private taping of KCRW’s ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ in Santa Monica, Calif., the Atlanta-raised, genre-bending artist had channeled everyone from the big-voiced movie musical star Judy Garland to the late, great James Brown. The set wasn’t even half way over; “One more time!” Monae egged at her 3-piece band, the next one getting louder. “One more time!” she stamped her foot. “ONE MORE TIIIIIM — her voice reaching a gospel screech like the Godfather of Soul — IIIIIIIIIIMME!”

Being signed to Diddy‘s Bad Boy/Atlantic Records label — once home to the Notorious B.I.G, Shyne and Faith Evans — might give people the wrong impression of the theatrically trained Monae, but her performances, like the one over the weekend, are so energetic (she moonwalks, gyrates and sings with a contagious frenzy) that when it comes to impressions, Monae leaves a lasting one.

“We wanna really help preserve art,” Monae told KCRW DJ Jason Bentley of Diddy during an impromptu interview between songs, “and do away with the divisive tactics that have been separating us. Sean Combs is into big ideas and so am I. I don’t live around categories and labels, and my music is to bring people together; to unite us. Not to cater to a red state or a blue state, but to create a purple state.”

Monae’s look — ’50s-inspired black and white uniform complete with saddle shoes — would be considered flamboyant by some. To Monae it is who she is. She says the uniform pays homage to her hardworking, blue collar parents; a mom who worked as a janitor, a dad who drove a trash truck, and a stepdad who donned the light and dark blues of the post office. And it’s her coif — an ‘I Love Lucy’ meets Elvis pompadour she’s coined “The Monae” — that stands for her embracing who she really is and how she wants to express herself.

While Monae’s music flip-flops between soul, rock and pop, it’s when she turns on a backing track that the tune takes the shape of hip-hop. ‘Dance or Die,’ a song she originally performed with Saul Williams, comes close to reaching skat levels, while ‘Faster’ channels a high adrenaline doo-wop song for the current ages.

Other songs from the set included the R&B grinder ‘Locked Inside,’ a slowed-down ‘Mushrooms & Roses,’ and a cover of Nat King Cole‘s ‘Smile’ she says she’s been performing for years now. But it was her closer, ‘Many Moons,’ where she raps the insults (weirdo, freak show, black girl, bad hair) that she has come to embrace over the years with an Andre3000 delivery, that defined what Monae is trying to do with music and her image. “And when the world just treats you wrong,” she sings, “Just come with me and I’ll take you home.”

Monae is currently on tour with Erykah Badu, but plans to co-headline a series of prop-friendly concerts this fall with fellow Atlanta-based indie rockers Of Montreal. Her new album, ‘The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III),’ was released this past May on her label, the Wonderland Arts Society, and Bad Boy Entertainment. Monae’s private taped concert will air on KCRW, July 2.

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