Forget Chris Brown’s tears. Forget Justin Bieber’s questionable nomination for Best New Artist. You can even forget Kanye’s Ronnie James Dio-esque choice to perform on a flaming papier-mâché mountain. If there’s one memorable moment from the BET Awards last month, it was Janelle Monáe’s tribute performance to Prince.
She’s shaking things up. There hasn’t been anyone this iconoclastic or decidedly artsy to make her way through the gates of BET orthodoxy and into the quasi-mainstream ever before. Perhaps the producers have learned from ignoring the likes of Grace Jones and Meshell Ndegeocello over the past few decades. Maybe they’ve finally decided to accept the weirdo-R&B movement that has maintained a strong, if underground, tradition, for over 30 years. Whatever the reasoning was, BET is (at last) backing genre-bending new talent that operates outside of the strict hip-hop/R&B radio-friendly format.
When viewed in isolation, Monáe’s performances don’t seem that far out. Sure, her dancing might look like Michael Jackson’s take on the Stanky Legg, but other than that, her music exhibits a lot of the more common black musical tropes.
Look instead at her albums in their entirety for evidence of exactly what sets Monáe apart. Her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, and her follow-up LP, The ArchAndroid, follow the story of a messianic figure for an android community in the fictional land of Metropolis. She draws inspiration from film noir directors like Fritz Lang and film composers like John Williams (just listen to her Suite II Overture and Suite III Overture on ArchAndroid) while interweaving a sci-fi themed concept throughout both albums. Yes, these are R&B concept albums. Two descriptors that haven’t come together with any kind of success since R. Kelly’s infamous hip-hopera, Trapped in the Closet. And that was just creepy.
But somehow, she manages to pull it off convincingly. Hopefully she’ll continue to evolve creatively, and more importantly grow in name and reputation. She’s already backed by Diddy, but it will be a great day in pop music when she becomes a household name in her own right. Keep an eye on her, she’s about to make it real big.
Check out the videos below for her performance at the BET Awards and her video for Tightrope (feat. Big Boi).
Her Prince tribute at the BET Awards:
And her video for Tightrope: