When Janelle Monáe released ‘Dirty Computer’ this April, she staked her claim to be the year’s most vital pop star. With its accompanying tour, she has strengthened that position. The first of her two dates at London’s Roundhouse is both joyous and vital. It is simultaneously a celebration of self-love and a fierce rebuke to the horror show in which society finds itself in 2018, delivered in the guise of perfect, polished pop.
She arrives to a colossal reception, the Roundhouse already in rhapsody as a white pyramid is revealed in the centre of the stage and Monáe is unveiled, at first lying prostrate on a medical table. As on her new album, ‘Dirty Computer’ segues into ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ by way of Martin Luther King’s quoting of the US Declaration of Independence – “You told us we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal” – then again into the pumping, futuristic funk of ‘Take A Byte’. Finally, she and her band flow with a flourish into the stratospheric pop of ‘Screwed’.
With this opening run alone, Monáe shows off every facet of her boundless talent. She moves with an easy dynamism in perfect time with her four dancers, spits the most glorious of bars with ferocious confidence, all the while sat atop the pyramid on a luxurious throne, and sings with a voice that can be stratospherically powerful when she decides to turn on the flair. Monae’s conceptual vision is often so far reaching that it’s easy to forget just how proficient she is in the basic art of being a star.
Throughout the set she raises the bar again and again. “Where are my queens?” she demands before a gleefully slick rendition of 2013’s ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, while for ‘Pynk’ she dons those now-famous vagina trousers for a performance of what has come to be her defining hit. On ‘Primetime’, meanwhile, she reveals the full extent of her exquisite, singular voice.
Yet for all Monáe’s abilities as a pop singer, there is more to the ‘Dirty Computer’ tour than perfect pop. Her music does not exist in a vacuum, it reacts and responds to the world around it with the sharpest of reflexes. ‘Screwed’, for example, is ostensibly a celebration of sex, but celebrates it as a joyous act of resistance. ‘You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down!’, she exclaims, backed by footage of resistance, protest and riots. ‘I hear the sirens calling / the bombs are falling in the streets / We’re all screwed!”
The crowd is extremely diverse, and she makes what feels like a particular effort to be as inclusive as humanly possible. She thanks them for supporting not only her career, but for supporting LBGBTQI rights, womens’ rights, minorities’ rights, and black rights – “because black lives do matter”.
Her message is one of both defiance and self-love. “Embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable,” she demands. “I want to stress the importance of mental health, it takes a lot to be a dirty computer.”
There are nods to Monáe’s predecessors at the helm of brilliant, zeitgeist defining pop music throughout the set. She moonwalks in the style of Michael Jackson, for example, and her guitarist plays a searing, Prince-esque solo to fill time for one of her many costume changes, bathed in appropriately purple smoke. Such is the strength of this show, a rallying cry to wield the love of ourselves and of others as a weapon against a darkening world, that there might well come a time to count Janelle Monáe as one of those greats.