Stage Presence: Eminem & Janelle Monae Do Voodoo Fest

Eminem’s lone full set concert of 2009, at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, was a solid, sober performance that didn’t showcase Eminem as a struggling vet mounting a comeback, but rather a standup stalwart who needed no help rocking the stage.

The headline showing began with a five-minute video trailer of Eli Roth-gore proportions, telling the story of an escaped mental patient (Emimen) who went on a killing spree in a Louisiana psychiatric ward. There were cut-off fingers, limbs, pools of blood, Em running shirtless through a dark forest a la Puff’s “All About the Benjamins” video. Then he emerged in a simple black hood, black jeans and blood-splattered white tee, sharing the stage with just a hype man–who four years ago, sadly, would have been slain sidekick Proof–and a band.

It was an amazingly strong showing from Em, who throughout much of his career relied on D12 brethren, Proof, 50 Cent or Dre to help him command the crowd. Friday night at Voodoo, he needed none of that. No backstory beef with Benzino or Ja Rule. No personal problems with Kim Mathers or his mother overshadowing the performance. In fact, when he got to “Cleaning Out My Closet” it felt more like a fictional tale–vis-á-vis “Stan”–than it did something real, as Em’s absence from the rap tabloids seems to have faded fans’ consciousness of just how much his life was an open book for so long.

He opened with songs from Relapse–“3 A.M.,” “Déjà Vu,” “Must be the Ganja”–which much of the hundreds in the crowd seemed to know word-for-word. By the time D12 joined him, Eminem had already claimed the stage as a pure hip-hop MC, not just a rapper embroiled in beef and bullshit. The showing completed a full circle for Eminem, who helped make the ten-year-strong Voodoo Fest. After the rapper was booked in 2000–the year he dropped his 9 million-selling sophomore album The Marshall Mathers LP–the music festival’s attendance jumped from 18,000 to a second year 65,000 concertgoers.

It was a commanding cap-off to a Voodoo Fest day that featured roughly 50 bands–ranging from blues rock duo The Black Keys to retro rap twosome The Cool Kids–on six different stages, among the artists Ledisi, The Knux and Janelle Monae. Cool Kids drew a large crowd; many blew spliffs in the air, giving Voodoo the aura of the Up in Smoke tours from back in the day. However, the performances from Ledisi and The Knux-both New Orleans natives-suffered from poor attendance and poor weather, respectively. Lore among attendees credited Monae for the storms, as the temperature dropped from sticky-hot to breezy-brisk with dark clouds forming above amidst her 5 p.m. set. The singer captivated the crowd before the Voodoo grounds were transformed into mud-stock for the hometown Knux.

Before Lady Gaga, Monae was known for eccentric, neo-geometric costume designs with bugged-out soundscapes, and at Voodoo, she was no different, sporting black penguin pants, a white blouse and oversized black bowtie. Her pompadour had grown a few inches in length and girth, and came apart during her wildstyle dance breaks. She hasn’t quite yet broken the pop threshold, but given her lively performance, it’s clear that she holds her forecast in her own hands. -Brentin Mock

Photo Credit: Shawn Escoffery