Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady
DetailsGenre: Funk, Pop, r&b, Soul
Pros:More radio-ready jams and heavy with superstar guests. The songwriting bar rises up a notch.
Cons:Lacks the epic storytelling syncopation of ArchAndroid, but comes very close
Monáe gets deliciously funky on latest addition to the ArchAndroid saga
Monáe gets deliciously funky on latest addition to the Metroplis saga
From a listener’s POV, it might be near impossible for Janelle Monáe to top her glorious masterpiece, The ArchAndroid. That mountaintop summit in her career revealed a concept album that played with Pink Floyd’s beginning-to-end brilliance, weaving multiple genres and a rainbow of sounds together in such a refreshing way. And although the theatric orchestrations of the disc limited her as far away from radio as possible, she proved her skill as an album designer. If she ever copied the achievement on latter projects, she would only be playing second best.
Her follow-up album, her third full-length to date, is conniving enough to copy the surreal pageantry of ArchAndroid. From the start, Monáe jumps into the same symphonic overtures that originally sent tingles up the spines of the classical kind on her last album. Those overtures are slightly reduced a bit on this round, considering the direction of The Electric Lady. As a somewhat homage to Jimi Hendrix and his infamous New York studio, the gorgeous Covergirl and well-known “Tightrope” singer is exploring more of the funk and allowing more guitar ripping to take center stage. She’s also shifting changing roles a bit from the super glorious album architect she’s most noted for into a distributor of radio-friendly tunes using the guise of high-grade R&B and soul.
With some help from the Purple One, “Givin’ Em What They Love” is a slithering piece of Erykah Badu circus. It also turns up Hammond organ, snazzy horns and Monáe’s youthful, but passionate vocalizing – something in the lines of a pre-puberty Michael Jackson. Prince’s appearance seems more like a Mr. Miyagi moment in The Karate Kid: He’s there to offer his blessing to the next generation of funkateers. As the album maneuvers through the many faculties in its order of worship, Monáe’s material gets stronger and stable. At first listen, “Q.U.E.E.N.” doesn’t become the Gap Band dazzler it should have been, but the Erykah Badu invite, its righteous fun funk – echoing Prince’s lesser-known experiments – and cool verbiage (“They be like ooh, she’s serving face”) are all decent attention grabbers. When the title cut blasts through the subwoofers, she creates the perfect empowering midtempo anthem that flirts with old-school SWV-esque riffs and hooks. “Electric lady, get way down/Cause tonight we gon’ do what we want to,” Monáe sings, as if she’s been blessed by the Earth, Wind & Fire gods. Then she bursts into a rhyme-spitting rage echoing the talents of her famous ATLiens: “Once you see her face, her eyes, you’ll remember/And she’ll have you falling harder than a Sunday in September/Whether in Savannah, Kansas or in Atlanta/She’ll walk in any room, have you raising up your antennas.” And that is exactly what you get with Electric Lady: A refreshing reincarnation of OutKast inventive glory. There’s entertaining radio interludes, odes to Southern hip-hop, spiritual injections (“Victory”), Philly soul (“It’s Code”) and the magical love maker (“Primetime”).
And there’s more of Monáe on her idols and the worlds beyond: “We Were Rock and Roll” plays with the pop market, while back-in-the-day throwbacks like “Dance Apocalyptic” will certainly delight those looking for a redux of “Tightrope.” She dances with Marvin Gaye’s robotic soul of “Sexual Healing” on “What an Experience.” “Ghetto Woman” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” from their productions down to its musical mechanics, is all about tracing the more eccentric sounds of Stevie Wonder. And in some sneaky kind of way that’s been part-blessing, part-curse to Monáe’s transparency, she even dances around the gay rumors on one of the song’s interludes when a radio caller blasts out that “robot love is queer” while referencing the ArchAndroid protagonist. DJ Crash-Crash, in his best WEFUNK radio voice, goes on the defense by saying, “How would you know it’s queer if you never tried it?” Rather than acting like a bitch like most pop stars, she blows off the controversy with a little humor while adding an extra layer to her edgy mystique.
If there’s one fault one might severely gripe about, they might find it in the long list of mortals in this portion of the ArchAndroid arc. The album is embarrassingly loaded with special guests (Solange, Miguel, Esperanza Spalding, Trombone Shorty), which might distract listeners from the album’s feature presentation and the star of the show, but Monáe doesn’t really need the outrageous pomp and circumstance. It’s flattering, yes, and she’s deserving of a parade of stars, but Monáe is a star on her own. And as a songwriter, singer and dare I say it – producer, she’s the George Clinton of this Mothership.
And to answer your hardball question – is The Electric Lady better than The ArchAndroid. Album wise, it’s a definite no, but it’s a close one. A damn good close one. But it is in the makings of being one of the best R&B-girded albums of 2013.