Sep 11, 2013

Music Review: "The Electric Lady" by Janelle Monae

By Ian Cory

It’s really easy to like Janelle Monae. She’s a great singer and a fantastic performer. She takes her art very seriously, but a huge part of her art involves getting you out of your seat and onto the dance floor. Her work is high concept but doesn’t skimp on catchy singles. Her aesthetic feels at once timeless and familiar while remaining distinct and unique among her peers. And if you care about appeals to authority, she’s been co-signed by Prince, Diddy, and Big Boi. So clearly Monae is doing a lot of things right. In fact, she her music does a lot of things in general, and while this makes her likable; it can also make her wildly inconsistent. Her first full-length record, 2010’s The ArchAndroid had two incredible singles among 16 other tracks that never dipped into anything other than solid, but often drowned each other out simply by proximity. Monae’s new album, The Electric Lady, doesn’t relent from this kitchen sink approach, if anything it doubles down on it. Instead of doing fewer things this time around, Janelle Monae just does everything better.

From a structural perspective both records are near mirrors of each other. Both are organized around a two-act form, each with their own overture and closing ballad. The first suite is the more upbeat and song oriented of the two, while the second half focuses on slower songs that tie in closer with the larger concept. Both records even end their first half with a syrupy ballad straight out of a Bond soundtrack* that flows smoothly into the overture of the second suite. What makes The Electric Lady distinct from its predecessor is that it rarely holds the listener at a distance. On The ArchAndroid the futuristic sheen to the production and heavy emphasis on its science fiction concept certainly made the album memorable but often forced the listener to admire it as a painting in a gallery, but not an environment to live in. This time around, Monae is far less obtuse, both musically and lyrically. While the time traveling cyborg narrative still worms its way in and out of the record, particularly in interludes imitating radio broadcasts, Monae is much more willing to break the fourth wall on songs like “Ghetto Woman” and speak plainly about her mother and the misconceptions the media paints around women of color. Even her metaphoric devices have become more pointed, and therefore effective, like on “We Were Rock N Roll” which functions both as a breakup song and a discussion of the way African Americans have been written out of rock history.

Like many others who construct visions of the future, Monae is equally fascinated with the past and its legacy. Her approach to songwriting and arrangement often feels like the last 60 years of black pop music shoved into a blender running at its highest speed. The opening duo of “Give Em What They Love” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” capture the dirty guitar of Prince (who shows up on the former) or P-Funk, while elsewhere on “What An Experience” Monae transitions Michael Jackson style balladry into horn lead reggae without missing a beat. In between these bookends, she channels Lauryn Hill’s organic hip-hop, smooth jazz harmony, 60’s girl groups, and every strain of R&B imaginable. Although the net of influences, instrumentation and collaborators are wide, what holds The Electric Lady together is Monae’s incredible voice, masterful string arrangements that draw from Philly Soul and the guitar pyrotechnics of Kellindo Parker. Nearly every song eventually explodes into a stadium sized guitar lead, occasionally matched note for note by Monae, who despite clearly investing a lot of time into her stylistic range, never lets variety get in the way of her ability to sing the shit out of a hook when she needs to.

Although she doesn’t capture the same sleekness of The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae has proved that she isn’t going to simplify her ambitious approach to pop music. In fact, this kind of all encompassing retro-futurism is oddly in vogue this year. The difference between Monae and the other notable practitioners of this style is that she marries her love of the past with contemporary messages without dismissing the present (like Daft Punk) or filling her lyrics with hollow clichés (like Justin Timberlake). The Electric Lady isn’t a perfect record, it gets kind of bogged down by its own weight near the end, but it’s a potent reminder of why we fell in love with Monae in the first place and how our admiration for what an artist represents can easily translate to enjoyment for what they do.

Grade: B 

*I’m not the type to start a petition, but Monae really, really should sing the theme for the next Bond movie. She’s a flexible enough singer to handle pretty much any direction they want to take it in, and her classy fashion sense is a perfect fit. Sam Mendes, do not miss this chance.

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