Essence Night #3: Beyonce Brings Glitz, But Janelle Monae Takes The Night

On the last night of Essence Fest I fell in love…but no, not with Beyonce. That’s who the sold-out crowd was there for, but to these ears it was Janelle Monae who made the night—and her set ranked with Jill Scott and Charlie Wilson as the weekend’s three great ones.

The Essence folks were clearly behind Monae: She got to curate one of Saturday’s Superlounges, and was even featured in a Cover Girl ad that played throughout the weekend. But in some ways, her set was unlike anything else at Essence: Hers was the only main-stage set that had any trace of a rock influence, and one of the few where the music and vocals were live from start to finish—complete with live horns and strings, which were used to great effect on a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” In a weekend full of fashion statements her fetching, androgynous look (with pompadour, white shirt and suspenders) may have been the most individual. And in terms of presence I was reminded more than once of Nona Hendryx, who did some groundbreaking funk/rock fusions in the ‘80s.

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Janelle Monae's originality and natural talent stole the show Sunday night at Essence Festival 2013. (Photo: Elsa Hahne)

It was also one of the few times I saw any humility onstage, as Monae aplologized for being under the weather and said “As an artist I’m not perfect, but I’m here to give you my best.” Her voice sounded fine, though—unlike many singers with deep, powerful voices, she never felt obliged to oversing. The covers in the set were surprising, but great to hear—Two Prince songs from Purple Rain (“Let’s Go Crazy” and “Take Me With U”), not even done back-to-back. She also did the Charlie Chaplin-written “Smile,” one of the more self-pitying songs in existence, and managed to squeeze some soul out of it. And the finale found her walking through the audience to lead a communal chant; a move that felt inclusive rather than hokey.

Beyonce’s set was preceded by the weekend’s only dead air, an additional forty-minute wait following the usual 20 minutes of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart commercials. And after Monae’s funky human touch, Beyonce’s set came off as a tribute to hugeness—full of Super Bowl production, with everything painted in the broadest possible strokes. She had an all-female band onstage, but what you usually heard was the massive digital whomp of Synclavier tracks. The opening number alone had lasers, fireworks and heavy choreography, all to make the point that “Girls Run the World”– Since we’re talking about 50 percent of the population, who’s going to argue? She now refers to herself onstage as “Mrs. Carter”– a reference to her recent marriage to Jay-Z—and at one point instructed the audience to greet her by that name. While that’s been criticized as an anti-feminist move, that’s not really the point: It’s more about celebrating her status as half of the world’s hugest celeb couple.

Of course Beyonce didn’t get this far without making some superior pop music, and the set had its resonant moments— the Motown-styled “Why Don’t You Love Me” was pure fun, and for once the stage setting (with a retro-styled dance routine) enhanced the music. And there were a few ballads, including “Flaws & All” early in the set, where she scaled everything back and sang live with the band. For the most part though, this was more a spectacle than a musical experience. But it did offer a lot of glitz and a lot of open-ended empowerment messages—two of the qualities that pretty much defined this festival.

View more from OffBeat’s Essence Festival 2013 photo gallery – Night 3 here.

  • 2PieceSpicy

    Respectfully, Brett, were we at the same Janelle Monae show? I kept waiting, and hoping, for her to grab the crowd. She never did. Whoever in her camp was responsible for pacing her set dropped the ball big time. I thought it was front-loaded with way too many slow songs. Had she started with 5 uptempo numbers, she could have had the audience in the palm of her hand instead of them milling around between the floor concessions and seats.

    I’m hearing from the inside that her trashing of equipment at the end of her set was not a planned part of her show and that there were some repercussions for her as a result.

    I really like Janelle. She is a big-time talent. But this was far from her finest hour.

    • Jay

      I definitely agree with 2PieceSpicy! I attended all three concert nights and unfortunately had to sit through Janelle Monae’s set because we could not get into the super lounge to see Mint Condition. Her appearing on the main stage was clearly fueled by politics which resulted in her completely bombing on the main stage. In all honesty it was actually painful to watch her realize she was not doing well. This is why she resorted to tricks and stunts toward the end in a desperate attempt to “make something happen”. Her failure to connect to the audience coupled with the vast majority of those in the stadium not even knowing who she was resulted in utter failure. As a consumer who paid “good money” to be on the floor center stage I was absolutely enraged that she was on the main stage when there were far too many other artists relegated to super lounges that should have been in her place. If Essence wants to continue to have a successful festival in years to come it definitely needs to stay away from choosing acts based on politics…especially acts that can’t deliver! I don’t disagree that Ms. Monae is talented but she was CLEARLY not ready for the main stage. She was WAY out of her element and needed to be in a super lounge. A concert attendee returning from the VIP lounge who knew people from the production company hired for the festival told us that Monae suffered a panic attack before the show. True or not in the back of my mind I was thinking “really…go figure”!