Many huge mainstream artists have been backed in concert by full orchestral accompaniment. Jay-Z mixed hip-hop with strings at Carnegie Hall last spring, and Phish's Trey Anastasio noodled on his guitar alongside several metropolitan city orchestras on a cross-country tour a few months prior. However, few have slid so comfortably into such a hit-or-miss experiment as Janelle Monáe did on Monday night in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The futuristic, funky R&B singer – who is set to drop her second album, The Electric Lady, this fall – was filling in for Aretha Franklin at the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association's annual Corporate Night. Due to illness, Franklin was forced to back out of Monday night's benefit show.
Monáe has never been a single-genre artist: the singer's 2010 debut, The ArchAndroid, was equal parts funk, soul and outré pop. With it, she displayed a knack for true versatility. It was still astounding nonetheless to observe how effortlessly the Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based singer gelled after such short preparation with the world-renowned orchestra, led by conductor Sean O'Loughlin.
"It's such an honor to be here," Monáe proclaimed early in the evening. The 27-year-old was bedazzled in her typically retro look – black suit, string tie, saddle shoes and massive quiff – and showed continued grace all evening as she performed before a crowd split between hoity-toity orchestra regulars and scattershot concertgoers ecstatic to snag a last-minute ticket. Over a 90-minute set, the singer dug deep into her original material, as well as ran through several standards and funk, soul and pop classics – and, yes, a moonwalk was indeed presented in the orchestral hall.
After opening with "Sincerely Jane," a particularly grand statement of love and regret off her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), the singer welcomed her own 12-piece choreographed band on the Charlie Chaplin-written standard "Smile." During the slow-building number, her guitarist, Kellindo Parker, took intricate stabs at his fret board as Monáe sashayed nearby. Following a brief break offstage during the orchestra's unhurried run through "The James Bond Theme," Monáe donned a white tux and succeeded in channeling Shirley Bassey with a jarring spin on the mammoth, vocally challenging "Goldfinger."
Monáe's charm carried the more uptempo moments of the evening, too. The manically moving crooner's cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" was spirited, saucy and showcased her great soprano; she ended it with her back to the crowd and her hands out in a Christ-like pose, recalling Michael Jackson's legendary Super Bowl halftime show performance. Later, her cover of Prince's Purple Rain classic "Take Me With U" had at least one patron jiving in the aisle. ("I have the honor of honoring this next man's music," she said before launching into it.)
Monáe's own hits made appearances near the end of her set: "Cold War," which she introduced as a song "written for all of us when we doubt ourselves," was jubilant and segued smoothly into the big-balled funk of her most mainstream hit, "Tightrope," during which she ordered the crowd onto their feet and then spun on one foot in a circle at its dramatic conclusion.
As if she hadn't already sent shockwaves through the orchestra hall all evening, Monáe left nothing to chance when she returned for an encore performance of her freak-funk single "Q.U.E.E.N.," which features an Erykah Badu guest verse on wax but was given extra muscle live with heavy instrumental backing. During it, she bounded into the crowd, twerking and proclaiming her "booty don't lie" before demonstrating as much. The orchestra-hall crowd was scarcely prepared for it, but they sure didn't argue.