Janelle Monáe is one of the most relevant artists working across today’s pop culture landscape. She may be best recognized at the moment for her impressive big-screen performances in acclaimed 2016 films “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” — for which she won the AAFCA Breakout Performance Award and the Black Film Critics Circle Rising Star Award — but fans and followers have been admiring her unique brand of futuristic dance-soul-funk for more than a decade.
Monáe’s brand-new album “Sexy Computer” is her most personal work yet, a heavily stylized collection of compelling, emotional songs disguised as infectious dance tracks described by Rolling Stone as “artful, ambitious, determined, joyous and inspiring.” And she’s bringing it to Las Vegas Tuesday night with a tour stop at the Palms.
I spoke with Monáe about the album and its accompanying “emotion picture,” putting it together and where her blossoming career could go from here.
You began the “Sexy Computer” tour last week. What does it feel like when you’re onstage sharing this music? It’s been overwhelming, the amount of love. I can’t even hear myself singing sometimes because the audience is singing back so loud. It’s a real personal, deep connection they have with the album and to see strangers hugging each other and singing along and laughing and crying together, it’s a sight to see.
It sounds like the response to the record has caught you off-guard a bit. It really has. It’s a deeply personal album [even though] every project I do is personal. To feel like someone feels the same, to relate to this project and understand the mindset I was in, that someone found something to latch onto that helps them get through, that’s not always something that can be expected.
You spent more time on this album and a lot happened personally and professionally during that time. Did you change your creative process somehow? I think I had some newer experiences. One was joining the film world and doing things like “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” encouraged me to walk even more boldly in my truth, to get even more honest and vulnerable because of these original stories of people being marginalized, people whose voices had been erased. Seeing them onscreen made me feel I have a responsibility to telling my story and my truth, whatever they may be, and to embrace being complicated.
The album is also a film. Did that part of the project influence how you want your live show to look and feel? The emotion picture, which people call a film or a short film, is its own work. It’s meant to complement the album experience and dig deeper into this world of what it means to have your existence be erased, to fight for and hold onto your dignity in a world that tells you [that] you’re dirty and should be clean or you’re not good enough. The live experience is really about making sure I connect with the people who come out. Nine out of ten of them have heard the album and seen the picture and they’re ready to touch me and break that fourth wall and that’s the most important thing. I don’t want it to be so cinematic that people could not connect, that it was like watching something at home. When I go to a concert, I don’t want a lot of layers between me and the artist. So that’s what we’re doing as much as we can, to let these songs be seen and heard.
I think there’s a lot of excitement about the next stage of your acting career. I’m sure you’re getting many different offers and projects thrown your way. It is exciting and I have a lot of ideas, big ideas pertaining to movies and films. I’m a student of the arts. I’ve been acting and singing and entertaining since I was a little girl. It’s about picking the right material and writing the right material that adds value to the conversation. Mostly I’m interested in fresh new stories, universal stories that connect with people.
I read about how you were finishing the album in Atlanta at the same time “Black Panther” was filming there, and the cast would stop by your studio and they sort of cheered you on to victory. It was an incredible feeling to have my friends in that film and I’m so proud of them, and I was cheering them on. Lupita [Nyong’o] is a close friend and Chadwick [Boseman] and Daniel [Kaluuya], we all were cheering each other on. They had heard a lot of the songs before, but we were staying up until seven in the morning dancing and jamming and enjoying each other’s company, and realizing we all have the responsibility to tell these stories through the lens of black folks. That’s the Afrofuturism lens that allows us to tell our stories the way we see them, to redefine what it means to be black. Knowing that we were making it, that we will prevail, was really a beautiful thing to share.
It seems like you should be in the “Black Panther” sequel. I would love to be in it. It feels like I’m in “Black Panther” already.
What do you think your show in Las Vegas will be like? I’m really excited about bringing together a diverse, dynamic audience. I just have a feeling there are some beautiful people there and I’m interested in all of us having a moment we will never forget.