“Tightrope” – Janelle Monáe

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Every so often a star shows up who’s so original and fully-formed that her ascent to cultural icon status feels inevitable. Janelle Monáe is the 2010s’ prime example. 

Raised in Kansas City, Monáe had early showbiz ambitions that couldn’t be tempered by her conservative Baptist upbringing. In a 2018 Rolling Stone article, her family tells stories about Monáe as a child that are almost too perfect – how she was escorted out of church for singing “Beat It” during services, how she won a talent show three years in a row doing Lauryn Hill every time.

OutKast found Monáe early on, and Big Boi became her biggest evangelist, convincing Puff Daddy to sign her based on her MySpace page. The influence went both ways – her debut EP, 2007’s conceptually ambitious Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), has a lot in common with post-Speakerboxxx Big Boi productions. Even so, Monáe’s futurist electro-funk style was already well-defined, and her star quality was undeniable.

In 2010, The ArchAndroid LP dropped, and that was that. Janelle made her network TV debut on Letterman, and it’s still jaw-dropping to watch now. There are traces of OutKast in the band’s hyper energy, but “Tightrope” is classic funk. Monáe proves herself worthy of pulling James Brown moves in front of an audience that has no idea who she is. At the end of the performance Letterman asks Puff Daddy to come onstage, who then bows to our new queen. What else could he do?

Throughout the decade, Monáe’s trajectory has only accelerated. She’s won awards from sources as diverse as MTV, the NAACP and GLAAD; she runs her own Wondaland Arts Society label; she penned a protest anthem that David Byrne sings on Broadway every night; she starred in two Oscar-nominated movies in the same year, including the Best Picture winner; she’s a CoverGirl model. There’s only enough room for so many stars in the world, but when you get a Janelle Monáe, you roll out the red carpet.