Lenny's Bar looks just like the high school cafeteria, with the black kids on one side of the room and the white kids on the other. But it's early yet, only 10:30 p.m., and still two hours before the birthday girl Janelle Monae comes out to get her Metropolis on. The other reason for the celebration, 10,000 copies of her debut Suite I: The Chase sold, is a triumph for obvious reasons considering her independent status. If the rumor mill is correct, major labels are flirting with Monae big time.
Much of Atlanta still doesn't quite know what to make of her or the rest of her newfangled soul rebels, Wondaland Arts Society, the creative team with which she colors outside the lines. As co-conspirators in her movement, they all juggle multiple positions, sometimes playing interchangeable roles – from producer to handler to hypeman – as they help push her artistry as the primary product.
"If y'all feel all right, say, 'hell yeah,'" show host George 2.0 says. "That was weak. We got a lot of minorities in here; we should be louder than that. Say, 'hell yeaahhh!'"
By now, the crowd is smattered with cool kids laced in Converse All-Stars. A few mini-mohawks are sprinkled throughout. A guy wearing an Afro-Punk T-shirt screams, "I'm so excited," before Monae comes out dressed in her trademark colors, a black shirt and white dinner jacket with lapels trimmed in black satin. It fits, considering Monae tends to sound like an old white lady (think Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz) trapped in a black girl's body. It's a cute contrast. Plus she gives good face, as she sings with dancing eyes and smiles on key through her first song, "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" Her musical-theater training steals the show, though she stops short of giving us the jazz hands.
By the time she finishes "Many Moons," her signature pompadour-fro is dangling below her brow in a way that's reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. When she takes off her jacket and throws it into the crowd, the catcher tucks it inside his coat with a mischievous grin.
She sings the crowd-favorite "Sincerely Jane" before stopping to thank "the tastemakers and early adopters" for their support. Next comes an unexpected cover of Anita Baker's "Sweet Love." Then she previews an unreleased song, "Locked Inside," that sounds more straight-ahead R&B than anything on her first release. But Monae is at her best when she sings "The Christmas Song," accompanied solely by her guitarist. It reminds everyone of her classical tone, which sounds just as foreign in Lenny's as it does in a club like Sugarhill.
But the dive bar offers a change in context that serves her well, especially when she decides to do a little crowd surfing. With little room to jump after climbing on top of a stage speaker, she leans into raised hands that lift her overhead. She's Superwoman for a spell, floating through the sky with outstretched arms. She twinkles her nose and makes a silly little face before hopping back on stage.
Her performance is destined to go down in history, shouts George 2.0. "You're gonna tell your children as you pack their lunches in Janelle Monae lunch boxes that you were here."