Janelle Monae charges up at Campus Consciousness Tour

Review: Campus Consciousness Tour headliner Janelle Monae electrifies Cornell University on a rainy Sunday night.

Janelle Monae wants everyone to shut up.

It’s 9:45 p.m. on Sunday and Monae hushes the Cornell University crowd. She wants the audience to lie down and doesn’t need to ask twice. Within ten seconds, hundreds of Ivy League students are crouched on the floor of Barton Hall, wriggling awkwardly among themselves. Monae’s bass player is facedown on the stage. Her string quartet players are draped on their chairs. Then Monae tells everyone to get up. No one knows why, but they do it. Orchestral crescendos and sticky beats suddenly propel the crowd back into an electric Twilight Zone reboot. They’d do anything for her.

Photo: Amanda Marzullo
The singer, dancer and fashion icon, Janelle Monae controls the crowd at Cornell University.

This Grammy-nominated singer, dancer and fashion icon exerted an almost mind-control force over her audience on Sunday as part of the Campus Consciousness Tour. She held up her hands in the shape of a heart and up went hundreds more. After she momentarily left the stage, the Monae withdrawal became painful enough for the crowd to start chanting her name until she came back. The audience became one needy child, united in its hunger for Monae, which is what she was going for, kind of.

“I think the music I create is definitely the common denominator in uniting us,” said Monae during a phone interview with The NewsHouse in advance of her Cornell show. “I think my goal in life is to bring people together. I come from a very hard-working background, people who turned nothing into something. I always wanted to bring everybody together from different social and financial classes.”

Monae regularly pays homage to her working relatives by donning her trademark tuxedo as her work uniform, which she dressed up with a dazzling rhinestone bow tie and black pants so shiny they looked downright flammable. Throughout the night, Monae added majestic capes and sci-fi goggles to her costume for extra doses of fancy, which the concert truly needed after the two vanilla opening acts.

The concert launched with a bass-shredding performance from Timothy Bloom, whose backup singers had more control over their pipes than Bloom himself. His hollering might’ve been tolerable, had Bloom not wiped sweat off his forehead and flicked it into the crowd repeatedly. “Ya’ll gonna sweat with me?” he called. Little enthusiasm from the crowd followed.

The second opener, fun., sang about being young and setting the world on fire. Lead singer Nate Ruess looked great in his too-tight blazer, but forgot his own lyrics in one song and even asked the crowd to sing if they could remember them. fun. started with a jolt but burned out too fast. Between Bloom and fun., there might have been enough jam to barely scrape over a bit of toast.

Then suddenly, finally, the energy of the concert turned atomic. Three cloaked goblins appeared onstage, swaying back and forth. One was Monae, who went on to make tremendous eye contact with her audience all night when she wasn’t moonwalking or spinning around the stage in her black and white saddle shoes.

Monae’s Wondaland ArchOrchestra, which included a string quartet and “the funkiest horn section in Metropolis,” danced right along with their bandleader. At the end of hit song “Tightrope,” the entire ensemble began heaving with perfect synchronicity, feverishly breathing like one gigantic, incredibly well-dressed animal.

In “Sincerely, Jane,” the goblins crept back onstage until Monae slipped into her ArchAndroid persona, attacking them with an imaginary laser gun. Her pitch kept flawless, her dance moves razor sharp and her coiled croissant of a hair-do stayed in place all night. Robots would’ve looked sloppy next to her.

At 25, Monae doesn’t see any end in sight to her work.

“I don't think I could ever fall out of love with music and creating,” Monae said. “There's something I see each day I see beauty in that I want to interpret and share with the rest of the world.”

National publications and critics have compared Monae to great artists of soul, jazz, R&B, afropunk, cyberfunk and countless other genres, in a futile effort to stamp a label on an artist who blurs the lines between categories.

“I don't define myself, I prefer not to do that,” Monae said. “I think with everything I do, I want you to know more about what I’m into. If you don't know that, then I need to do more.”

After hitting a particularly high note with alien precision, Monae paced back and forth onstage, deciding where to Do It. A security guard looks aghast. She decides, yes, this part of the crowd, here in the middle. The audience greedily holds out their arms. She climbs up, manages to stand and spread out, wobbling happily on her fans’ shoulders. She almost falls. Human after all.


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