Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)

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Posted September 13, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

janellemonae00Highly eclectic, experimental concept album – the year’s most entertaining so far – raises the bar of expectations for new star

Being unashamedly idiosyncratic comes with its share of penalties in today’s music world. But when done and timed right, the results can be extremely rewarding. Janelle Monáe is a super hybrid with a Love Jones’ for a myriad of musical tastes that, in the end, flourishes into a unique style that is all original. With a stroke of her brush, Monáe whips up a colorful mosaic that blends the creative funkiness of George Clinton’s P-Funk, the musical expressionism of Michael Jackson and the gusto of Erykah Badu together into one dazzling collage on her new album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). On anyone else, this may have been too much to digest. But Monáe, using a concept album filled containing the futuristic chronicles of Metropolis and their latest android heroine Cindi Mayweather, curtails past pop music’s conventional guidelines and grabs listeners’ attention, even if they don’t want to. The project, getting its inspiration from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis, plants Mayweather, the protagonist, in an altered universe controlled by technology and science and in a desperate situation to free the oppressed of the city from a secret society of bad guys. If The ArchAndroid was a movie, Monáe would definitely be a heir of George Lucas. But this is music. Could this expansive work of art succeed without CGI effects or Hollywood’s super-enhanced visuals? Well, the story is great, entertaining and is successfully inscribed in the album’s lyrics, but it’s just an enhancement. The music, anchored with Monáe’s spirited performance, multiple character alternations and the futuristic kaleidoscope of classic styles, are the album’s greatest reward.

With so much to dig into, “Tightrope” definitely stands out. It perfectly blends the elements of new using familiar Outkast ingredients, even getting a rap cameo from Outkast’s Big Boi, with the old, tapping into the fierce energies of Little Stevie Wonder and a zesty James Brown tempo. Not much comes as close to touching the easy accessibility of Amy Winehouse soul, but Monáe never slumps into performing unattractive songs. She grabs the ethereal melody of The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” and kicks it into high-gear on the flaming rock favorite “Come Alive.” The Lava Lamp psychedelic soul of “Mushrooms & Roses,” a favorite for those looking for a Jimi Hendrix-meet-Isleys brand of soul, is highlighted with a woozy, orgasmic guitar solo akin to Michael Toles on Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By.” Then there’s the charming first half, containing the monotone fast raps of “Dance or Die,” the jazzy successor “Faster” and the MJ-influenced “Locked Inside,” knitted closely together like a non-stop mixtape and with no sign of a melody flub. One of the album’s even brighter spots, “Wondaland” is breezy pop, reminiscent to Tom Tom Club, and finds her singing in an irresistibly innocent child-like tone. Monáe plays with childhood fantasy for the most part but uses a sprinkle of innuendo when she injects “don’t freak and hide/I’ll be your secret santa, do you mind?”

She goes beyond the predictability of most modern R&B workouts, even beyond the share of pop misfits, to incorporate big mood changers and experimental crossbreed genres into the mix. Monáe uses the storytelling and the language of folk music to anchor down the dreamy sounds of “Sir Greendown” and “Oh, Maker.” A three-minute classical prelude, sown together with opulent strings, opens up the first half. When the album finally cools down on the last suite, she uses the dreamy, therapeutic vibes on “57821″ and “Say You’ll Go” along with a James Bond-inspired outro (“BeBopByeYa”) to keep interest levels aroused. The grooves on the second suite don’t have that memorable factor of the first one, nor bear much radio accessibility, but it provides a dazzling close-up of Monáe’s busy imagination.

At times, the album is a little too much for music novices. If you’re not cultivated heavily into a vast selection of musical backdrops like jazz, classical or even rock, digesting The ArchAndroid in one hour is almost impossible. But Monáe creates an ingenious record that bears the elements of Prince’s Purple Rain or Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, in terms of never feeling dated while also showcasing an amalgams of genres. Much of today’s R&B feels too stiff, too hard to loosen, so it makes sense to see Monáe being compared with glam star Lady Gaga. Gaga, with her futuristic makeup and wardrobe along with her disco pop, sits well in Monáe’s sci-fi universe. Ironically that’s where the comparisons end, since it’s clear that Monáe is a triple-threat: she can sing, dance and rap. It will certainly take a few years before mainstream realizes the breadth behind this record. In the meantime, we can only wait until George Lucas calls her up for the next chapter in the never-ending Star Wars saga.

J MATTHEW COBB

HIFI DETAILS

  • Release Date: 18 May 2010
  • Label: Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy
  • Producers: Kevin Barnes, Roman GianArthur, Chuch Lightning, Janelle Monáe, Nate “Rocket” Wonder
  • Track Favs: Tightrope, Wondaland, Come Alive, Dance or Die, Mushrooms & Roses

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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