Janelle Monáe Soars with Chicago Symphony Orchestra
On Janelle Monáe’s 2010 disc, The ArchAndroid, the singer casts herself within a futuristic story line that brought her back from the year 2719. Here on early 21st century Earth, Monáe dutifully acknowledges her artistic predecessors—when she performed at the Chicago Theatre a couple years ago her backdrop included film clips of Sun Ra. But her science fiction epics, androgynous persona and advocacy for uncompromising artistic individuality have not prevented her from being embraced in the commercial arena: She’s currently the face of Cover Girl cosmetics.
Even with this acceptance, Monáe’s performance on May 20, when she fronted her group combined with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Symphony Center, was a bold gamble. The concert was a fundraiser for CSO and was geared toward corporate donors, many of whom were not entirely familiar with her innovative take on r&b. Originally, Aretha Franklin was slated to be featured, but she cancelled a few days earlier (citing medical reasons). Monáe was quickly called in as a replacement. Not that there’s a total disconnect: Monáe creates compelling new music while consciously tweaking sounds and dance moves from Franklin-era hits.
The highlights were Monáe and the aggregated ensembles’ performance of songs from ArchAndroid and her riveting new single, “Q.U.E.E.N.” The CSO strings captured the romanticism and sinister edge of “Sir Greendown,” which contrasted with Monáe’s dreamy vocals. On “Tightrope” that same orchestral section hit with surprising precision and didn’t seem thrown by Monáe’s James Brown-inspired dance moves (unless, like him, she was co-conducting through her footwork). The two different kinds of groups also heightened “Q.U.E.E.N.” The song is primarily an electric funk workout, but shifts gears and concludes with Monáe rapping above an ethereal background string section (her words are a rejoinder to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” so having a similar arrangement to his song makes its own statement). Conductor Sean O’Loughlin deserved credit for his part in making all of these groups blend.
The other part of the 80-minute concert featured Monáe’s renditions of soul hits, standards and a show tune. They had mixed results, but all of them showed off the versatility of her voice, as well as her early theater training. She shined on “Smile”—alongside featured guitarist Kellindo Parker, Monáe’s vibrato was uplifting. The unbridled joy she exuded belting The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” with a full orchestra re-creating late-’60s Motown was palpable throughout the hall. But hearing more of Monáe’s own intergalactic fantasies would have been preferable to the “Goldfinger” theme, even with her fun Shirley Bassey impression.
There is no telling what Monáe’s otherworldly imagination could do with dozens of classical musicians, an accomplished conductor and longer preparation time. But considering that O’Loughlin had less than a week to assemble this gig and an earlier one in San Francisco, the night’s challenges were already formidable enough. Besides, such a collaboration could happen in the future. If Monáe maintains even a fraction of the spirit and energy she displayed that night, she’ll be around for a while.