Does turning one’s limitations into shtick amount to moving past them?
Janelle Monáe seemed to think so Saturday night at Club Nokia, where she brought her tour behind this year’s “The Electric Lady” for a sold-out concert as accomplished as it was frustrating.
The lady in the album’s title is Cindi Mayweather, the embattled android heroine of an elaborate sci-fi yarn that Monáe has been spinning since her first major-label EP in 2007; “The Electric Lady” evidently serves as a prequel to Monáe’s 2010 disc, “The ArchAndroid,” with clues about Cindi’s origin story.
But the epithet refers also, of course, to Monáe herself, an adventurous 27-year-old singer from Atlanta whose spark-plug style pulls from soul music, early rock ’n’ roll and the proudly futuristic funk that George Clinton pioneered in Parliament.
Her vision has attracted believers among both fans and fellow artists. Last year, the band Fun. drafted Monáe to sing on its No. 1 smash “We Are Young,” while Prince and Erykah Badu, both die-hard individualists, appear on “The Electric Lady.”
And Saturday, the crowd at Club Nokia was peppered with young women (and a few men) who’d adopted Monáe’s signature look -- crisp lines, black and white colors, an exaggerated pompadour -- for themselves. (Monáe is scheduled to play Tuesday at the House of Blues in Anaheim.)
Fronting a 13-piece band that included a string quartet and two horn players, the singer drew on a seemingly bottomless power supply as she moved through her two-hour show.
And I do mean “moved”: Here was a performer capable of shimmying across a stage on one leg while delivering the rat-a-tat vocals of uptempo tunes such as “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic,” both of which recalled the frenetic thrum of “Hey Ya!” by her one-time collaborators in OutKast.
Even the more relaxed numbers, such as the slinky “PrimeTime” and “Electric Lady’s” swinging title track, had Monáe rocking her shoulders in sync with her two backup singers, as though standing still were something to be ashamed of.
Or something to be feared. That moment, after all, is often when an audience expects to solidify its connection with the artist onstage -- to understand fully whatever it is that the rest of the show’s moving parts are working to put across.
Yet Monáe appeared actively to avoid that kind of declaration. The hair, the costumes, the bit in which she was wheeled onstage in a straitjacket -- it all grew to feel like a barrier against the desire to know who exactly Monáe was and how these pop-culture signifiers related to her existence.
“You know what this song is about?” she asked before “PrimeTime,” lowering her voice to a conspiratorial murmur that readied fans for some kind of specific insight. The answer, though, carried none. “Love,” she said.
Ditto the two covers Monáe and her band performed: Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, both so fixed in listeners’ heads that they offer virtually no interpretive leeway.
At a time when an entertainer’s private life is considered just another piece of content, there’s an exciting idea at work somewhere inside this studied opacity. (The robot thing, though tedious, feels thought-through.) And Monáe provided glimpses of it Saturday, as when she waded into the crowd during a long version of her song “Come Alive (War of the Roses).”
For many performers, such a stunt is an opportunity to soak up the adoration of their fans, the louder and more demonstrative, the better. Yet Monáe, deep within some obscure routine, shushed the audience repeatedly; she seemed genuinely to want to experience her show from its perspective.
It was an interesting inversion, at least for her. We spectators, on the other hand, were left wanting for someone more eager to repay our attention.