Not long into the show, probably around the time Janelle Monae ascended a white staircase to roost on her throne of gold and crimson velvet, it became impossible not to wonder: What was this show doing here?
It was an arena-sized performance Monae brought Thursday to cozy Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, one that radiated pride and righteousness and sexual empowerment in tidal waves. There was a big ol' band, a cadre of torso-twisting dancers and of course Monae herself, a fun-size Furiosa of future-funk making her local debut. Even extending the Jannus Live stage by a good eight feet barely held the whole show in place.
Without a hit single to her name, Monae still drew and enthralled 1,700 rabid fans, diverse in skin tone and hair color, gender and gender identity, glowing in every hue of the LGBTQ rainbow. And you can bet each one left singing the gospel of St. Janelle.
"This entire experience was created and rooted in love!" said Monae, 32, her eyes so wide and bright they glowed from the back of the courtyard. "Do you like how you look tonight? Because I do! Do you love yourself tonight? Because I do! We're celebrating self-love! We're celebrating the things that make us unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable."
Monae, who identified as pansexual in a spring Rolling Stone cover story, gets deep into it on her new album Dirty Computer, which will probably end up atop more than one 2018 best-of list. It's a futuristic document of sexual exploration and political freedom, an unapologetic screed on Right Now. And it dominates this tour — Monae sang nearly all of the album on Thursday, dipping only briefly back into her catalog.
Working her glittery mic and weaving in and out of her dance squad, Monae did it all. She sang and rapped of sex and power and politics on Screwed, backed by wubba-wubba bass and wocka-wocka guitars. She twerked to a trumpet solo on Q.U.E.E.N., rapping and raising her first in power. On Electric Lady, horns astride her, she spiced up jazzy interludes with Tribe-like rapping, twisting her hips and egging people to sing along in the breakdowns.
All night she showed her influences and inspirations, some expected, others not so much. Minnesota funk? You betcha, from the ecstatic Purple Rain guitar outro on PrimeTime to her in-set costume change before Django Jane (that mirror on the stage was pure Morris Day). Her punkish howl on the skittery go-go Cold War felt like Bjork. Make Me Feel was a cornucopia of homages, with Monae snapping like Janet, voguing like Madonna and interpolating I Got the Feelin' as she dropped to her knees like James Brown.
Perhaps she tried to provoke, just a little, though this audience was not really the provokable type. Pynk saw Monae and some dancers donning trousers lined with vaginal chaps, ruffling suggestively to the beat. The salacious I Got the Juice clapped back at President Trump ("Try to grab my p—y, this p—y grabs you back") but ended with Monae pulling fans on stage to dance, including one in a wheelchair.
"However you want to dance, whatever you want to do, this stage is yours, alright?" Monae told her.
It was that repeated message — I am you, and you are me, and we're all in this together — that made Monae's connection to the audience feel so tangible. She spoke often of the rights of women and minorities and immigrants and the elderly. She urged people to register to vote and look out for their own mental well-being.
"We need you out there," she said. "We need each other out there. Representation matters. Depression is real. Anxiety is real. Suicide is real. Drug abuse is real. So let's be gentle to one another, and kind, and love ourselves for what we are."
She tied it all together with American, an utterly rousing Let's Go Crazy-style jam for the end times. She curled her fingers into a heart and waved it to the crowd, and, as if she hadn't already been dancing all night, just kept on jitterbugging until the end, like she didn't know quite how to stop.
Squeezing an arena's worth of show into a courtyard was a heck of a way for Monae to spring herself on Tampa Bay. But it won't happen next time around. It's not possible. A stage that size can't contain her.
— Jay Cridlin