Stick an orchestra behind the average rock, pop, or R&B star and they typically do one of two things — they usually get outclassed or they become somebody else. That did not happen to Janelle Monáe Thursday night with the San Francisco Symphony, at its home base, Davies Symphony Hall. What she did was become more like herself — a category-defying entertainer whose stylistic breadth is as wide as her talent is outsized.
Three years after her knockout debut album, The ArchAndroid, and three weeks after the release of her even more confrontational single with Erykah Badu, "Q.U.E.E.N.," this Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based singer's record sales and radio play remain modest: Her unconventionality is not the sort that yields overnight success. But the way she fully commits to every musical, visual, conceptual, and sociological element of her presentation is now hitting a superstar level.
Her appearance came as part of a night-long package that included optional mega-bucks dining opportunities before the show and a post-performance party for all at nearby City Hall, so the event drew a peculiar but perfectly appropriate combo of high-society regulars and her even more urbane diehards. If there were those among them not wowed by her original material, pop-soul classics, jazz and blues numbers, and soundtrack oldies — all given the full orchestral treatment — then there was some mighty good bluffing going on.
The 90-minute set started with an overture conducted and orchestrated by Sean O'Loughlin that was the first of several nods in the direction of James Bond composer John Barry. Monáe and her large band took their entrance for "Sincerely, Jane," an already symphonic highlight from her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), here rendered even grander with huge blasts of sassy brass and stabbing, Psycho-like strings. "Are we really living or just walking dead now?" she asked before pulling a 180 for "Smile," the Charlie Chaplin-penned standard, while her guitarist Kellis Parker, Jr. strummed jazzy chords and strings swirled around her.
Then, without warning — BAM! — we were hit that unmistakable introductory chord of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Yes, she recently performed it at Coachella, but here the original came back to life with all the symphonic Motown bells and whistles. Monáe gleefully snapped around the small expanse of stage not already filled with musicians as her soprano nailed the notes and delivery of young Michael. It was dumbfounding and uplifting all at once, and the entire crowd was doing what came naturally — absolutely freaking out.
Following a jazz ballad came other faithful renditions: Prince's "Take Me With U" evoked the familiar Purple Rain version but with bigger strings, and then "James Bond Theme," which allowed the singer to swap her black tux jacket for a white one offstage, returning in time for "Goldfinger." Like just about everyone else on earth, Monáe lacks Shirley Bassey's superhuman lung-power, but she did display a kindred intensity. Introducing "Cold War," she explained, "I wrote this song for you, no matter who you love or what color you skin is." Framed in that context, and bolstered by the Symphony's heaving orchestrations, the song grew even more emphatic.
With the men in tuxes, the women in gowns, and the distinctions between sexes magnified, Monáe's androgyny similarly grew more remarkable. Her movements clearly draw from male and female, black and white alike, and she does so far more gracefully than the usual outlaw rocker. Because she's so small, her movements seem even larger, more confident. Monáe has mastered that trick of turning what's uncomfortably different into what's charismatically special.
After the crowd leaped to its feet for "Tightrope," and she bounced around until her bouffant flopped halfway down her face, Monáe returned and closed the show with "Q.U.E.E.N.," defying anyone to put her in a box — racial, sexual, or otherwise. Here as on record, the new single boasted the uptown funk of En Vogue's self-empowerment classics, but with extra boldness in the presentation. "The booty don't lie," she sang, jumping off the stage to wave her backside at the front rows and then sashay her way up the aisle, much to the delight of all nearby. She steps to the beat of her own internal choreography: If that makes her a freak, so be it.