Janelle Monáe, Roundhouse, London

Stunned by a neo-soul sensation
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The Independent Culture

In a world where average talents like Jessie J are hyped to the heavens, what scale should we employ to measure the extraordinary, explosive abilities of Janelle Monáe? She's a force of nature, a diminutive typhoon of talent able to take the ultra-hip crowd at a sold-out Roundhouse showcase and twirl them round her tiny finger. At one point, she orders the standing audience to crouch on the floor, like Janelle and her ensemble, and they eagerly comply, leaping to their feet with glee as the song "Come Alive" comes alive again.

Monáe's show is firmly in the black soul tradition of James Brown and P-Funk – a glorious spectacle that opens with a top-hatted MC welcoming us, before Janelle's video-screen address in her ArchAndroid guise heralds the propulsive "Dance Or Die". Her band – including two horns, a couple of backing singers, and a stunt guitarist hot enough to curl hair at a hundred paces – are in black suits, while at the front, three hooded monk-like figures sway side-to-side. Suddenly, one of them becomes Janelle, a slight, androgynous figure in black tie and trousers, topped with cantilever beehive quiff, and just bursting with ebullient power.

As on the album, "Dance or Die" segues into "Faster", and that into "Locked Inside", the energy ratcheting up each time: it's the most dazzling opening sequence I've experienced, and it's only the start of her extraordinary show. While the rest of the band retires for a breather, the core unit relaxes with a brief but bracing burst of virtuoso prog-metal fusion, after which Janelle returns to sing "Smile" accompanied by only the guitarist, whose jazzy style perfectly reflects her take on the standard – the element of showboating in her delivery, for instance, is more about emotional interpretation than egotistical indulgence.

Over the next hour and a half, Janelle shows us that she can sing as well as any soul diva, dance like James Brown, and use whatever showbiz gambit might get a response, from balloons to confetti, as she and the band power through album highlights like "Wondaland", "Cold War", and the psychedelic-soul extravaganza "Mushrooms & Roses". This isn't your average R&B fare, either: the irresistible "Wondaland" has a kind of pomp-rock pop flavour, while "Oh, Maker", with its fingerpicked guitar and opening line echoing Simon and Garfunkel, starts out as folk-rock before blossoming into a charming pop-soul paean. Throughout, there's always something happening onstage: hooded zombies stalking the singer, the trumpeter spinning his instrument like nunchuks, the fat trombonist doing an agile tiptoe-dance, the entire ensemble doing a bizarre crouching bounce routine, squatting like Cossacks. At one point, Janelle sings while painting at an easel.

All the while, the video-screen pumps a stream of fast-cut footage – Cassius Clay, JFK, dancing couples from the Forties, rioting Morlocks from Metropolis – producing a sensory overload that has heads spinning. But through it all shines Janelle Monáe's sheer talent, a voice capable of negotiating the most demanding melismatic sequence while blowing us away with its sheer power. As we depart, exhilarated and utterly drained, it's clear I'm not the only one who believes they've just seen the real future of pop.

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