Primavera Sound festival, Barcelona, Spain, May 31, 2019
“I hadn’t heard her music until this weekend,” says a reveller early into Janelle Monae’s set on Friday. “But now I’m completely obsessed.”
There’s so much to unpick in that comment – and it’s not the first of its kind overheard tonight. Stood before the thousands at Primavera Sound’s Pull&Bear stage is probably this decade’s most underrated pop star. Monae has never had a hit song (save for a guest slot on Fun’s ‘We Are Young’) and yet she sings, dances, acts, raps like she was forged in the cast irons of Bowie and Prince. That a casual festival-goer could be converted to a fan within minutes isn’t surprising. Monae zips through a ferocious blend of funk, P-Funk, pop, soul, hip-hop and more replete with exceptional choreography and showmanship.
Unity is very much the theme of tonight’s performance, which is at the heart of Monae’s ethos. In the few spoken moments between songs she tells the crowd that everyone is welcome. She’s dedicated her life to “speaking up for the marginalised, the rights of women, to dirty computers, black folks, lower class, disabled people, immigrants, the LGBTQA community,” and music is her healing gift to the world.
But it’s also for herself. Gliding effortlessly from ‘Crazy Classic Life’, of which her vocals are sadly too low in the mix, into the joyful funk blasts of fellow ‘Dirty Computer’ song ‘Screwed’, Monae flips the tone for another one of her latest album cuts, ‘Django Jane’. In her red and white plastic suit, she swaps a peaked cap for a bejewelled Egyptian headdress and ascends the stage’s white, stepped pyramid to sit on its throne. Monae takes ownership of the political issues she litters her show with with – blackness, queer identity, feminism, the working classes – spitting bars from atop the imaginary palace that her dancers flank. The lyric, “Black girl magic / y’all can’t stand it” may as well have been left to the audience to rap; likewise with, “Let the vagina have a monologue,” which fans bellow to the high heavens. Monae deadpans at the song’s close, though her attempts to disguise a smile don’t go unnoticed.
What’s striking about tonight’s show is just how much Monae is enjoying herself. Be it synchronised jolts with her uniformed dancers, drop-kicking the air, changing costumes or sending big political fuck you’s (“as a queer black woman in America, I hate what Trump is doing”), Monae exhausts every note, move and expression as if it was the last show on earth.
It’s a shame that, at least standing on the right-hand side of the PA system, that the music’s treble tones and Monae’s vocals are often lost in the drum-heavy mix. By the time ‘Pynk’ comes around, however, much has improved and the skeletal subtleties of Monae’s ode to the vagina are audible. Monae and her dancers scuttle playfully across the stage while sporting ‘vagina trousers’: frilled, fleshy harem-like pants that contract and expand as their wearers bend their knees. The desert plains and varying connotations of female genitalia (donuts, pink lipstick) from the song’s music video are projected behind as Monae’s celebration of self-love and sexual freedom rings out.
Tracks from ‘Dirty Computer’ take up much of the set but Monae also plays ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ and ‘Electric Lady’ from her 2013 album ‘The Electric Lady’, with crowd call-backs aplenty. She closes the set with an extended version of ‘Tightrope’ from her 2010 debut ‘The ArchAndroid’, which erupts with jazzy vim and vigour.
After Monae darts off into the crowd, the song drags for what feels like 10 minutes. It’s a somewhat tedious end to an otherwise thrilling show – but one that won’t lose any new fans fast. We’re all with you, Monae.