Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae both grew up in perhaps less-than-stimulating middle-American cities – Pittsburgh, PA and Kansas City KS, respectively, though Wiz’s youth also took in North Dakota and overseas army bases – and both clearly spent formative years figuring out how to escape drab reality in their minds. At the Atlantic Records South By Southwest showcase, by co-sponsored Rolling Stone, at Austin’s La Zona Rosa Thursday night, the two artists demonstrated their different methods of disappearing into alternate realities.
Wiz – introduced before his set as a Penguins fan , though his giant hit “Black And Yellow” clearly champions the Steelers – came out right around midnight, surrounded by variously four or five members of his bi-racial posse, the Taylor Gang. And he seemed super happy to be there – a skinny little military brat in a white T-shirt, sunglasses, a small square of yellow amid his black hair, and skin covered in tattoos (“Body marked up like a wall in the Eighties,” his inkiest song brags), he was at first sipping a paper cup of something he said was alcoholic, and he barely stopped smiling or laughing his cartoonish “huh huh huh huh huh” chuckle all night; rare among rappers, he doesn’t seem to have an angry bone in his body. “Anybody who doesn’t know, my name is Wiz Khalifa,” he humbly reminded the crowd, and later took several opportunities to note that his album, Rolling Papers, comes out March 29, and we can get it if we want but it’s alright if we don’t huh huh huh huh huh. That album title is a big clue as to his escape hatch – marijuana makes “those ho’s follow like Twitter,” he rapped early on, and wondered “if you don’t smoke, I don’t know why,” and did a call-and-response called “Waken Baken,” and apologized that “I really can sing but I be high as fuck.” The music stayed blunted but sunny, and he even approximated a love song or two – including his recent single about how whenever some girl calls, he rolls up. (In case the crowd didn’t catch the pun: “How many of y’all know how to roll that good ass weed?”) He said that, a year and a half ago, he was in the audience like all the fans there, and walking down Austin streets eating pizza. He did exuberantly loose semi-synchronized sidesteps with the Taylor Gang, which in the case of Wiz’s own dance moves came off rubbery and liquid, almost hinting at moonwalking at points, and a slinky striptease bump-and-grind when he lifted his shirt up once. He rapped a tribute breakdown to the late Nate Dogg and “more shit I look up to.” And he closed with “everybody’s favorite song,” “Black and Yellow” – a car tune as a sports anthem as a song about colors as a statement about doing everything big.
Then, about an hour after Wiz had taken the stage, Janelle Monae was in his place. Preceded by some Seventies Earth Wind and Fire space-funk, entering to a demiclassical overture, and introduced by a master of ceremonies in top hat and bowtie, she came out with a full band – including a a two-man horn section – all well-dressed in varying dapper combinations of black and white. Front of the stage, three monks in druid robes knelt with backs to the crowd. As the band started in on a hard funk riff, mini-pompadoured Janelle entered in a vampire cape, immediately dominating the stage despite being the shortest person on it. The set’s early songs – “Dance Or Die” into “Faster” into “Locked Inside” – segued into each other in a way that seemed almost through-composed; Janelle left no doubt that she’s got a thing for concept albums. (Last year’s The ArchAndroid had two suites, after all). Her backup singers changed costumes a lot – nun’s habit, white masquerade masks, huge angel-creature wings, skull-headed zombies doing a “Thriller” dance. At one point, she left with most of her band, her guitarist took a proggish solo, then Janelle came out for a souped-up supper-club rendition of “Smile” by Judy Garland – an appropriate inspiration for a Kansas girl who theatrically conjures Oz-like worlds of her imagination. Later, as she sang “Wondaland,” an old man in a rabbinical hat and beard set up an easel in the middle of the stage; Janelle went into “Mushrooms and Roses,” and wound up drawing the trace lines of a woman’s body in red on the canvas, then spattering it in blood-like ink while primal-screaming almost Yoko-style, then rescuing the art with other colors. Lights went down a couple times for teasing semi-encores, and eventually the crowd got the “Tightrope” song and dance they were clamoring for – extended jazz-style, with references to both James Brown’s “one more time” vamps and his cape.