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SXSW Day 2 afternoon report: Get to know Janelle Monae

March 19, 2009 |  6:03 pm
Jon

There's no question that Janelle Monáe has style. Armed with an Elvis-worthy pompadour, a dapper white suit and a bevy of sly '50s-inspired dance moves, she arrived in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music conference ready for Broadway -- or her own sci-fi movie.

For about 30 minutes, Monáe completely owned a corporate-sponsored unofficial day party Thursday, displaying a showtune-worthy know-how above and beyond her SXSW peers. Of course, when you’re debut album is co-produced by OutKast's Big Boi, you better show up in Texas with more than a little showmanship. 

Her sci-fi backdrops would do well with a massive, Kanye West-inspired stage show (the Chi-Town rapper will be here Saturday). Of all the 1,900 acts performing at SXSW, Monáe is one that unapologetically deserves some lasers and gigantic “Star Wars”-inspired cartoonish sets.

But she doesn’t need any extra trappings. Taking the stage to a John Williams-worthy overture, and a voiceover telling the crowd to leave its phasers at the door, Monáe doesn’t just perform -- she brings the audience on a trip. Singing tracks from her debut EP, "Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase," Monáe offered a brief live set that showed off her dance moves and her vocal range.

One need know the details of Monáe's sci-fi concept. Her songs are really about escape. In "Many Moons," she sings, "All I wanna do is sing my simple song," and then the cut breaks down into a rapid-fire explosion of booming, soulful beats and a near spoken-word attack, one that turns put-downs into a statement of defiance.

Monáe's songs are a genre-hopping mix of vintage psychedelic soul -- part OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and part Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." It's easy to get lost in the sampled orchestrations of her songs, where scorching guitar riffs collide with big band saxophones. 

And just when you think you've got her figured out, she disappears from the stage, and re-emerges to a loungey, jazz guitar accompaniment, and breaks you're heart with "Smile." It's a strikingly simple ballad that allows Monáe to not just sing about outer space, but also to use her voice to reach it.

-- Post and photo by Todd Martens

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