Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
September 6, 2013
Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy
What It Sounds Like: On suites four and five of her seven part Metropolis series, we find Janelle Monae (or Cindi Mayweather – more on her later) slinging high class psychedelic soul, with sweet pop choruses, grand orchestral sections, and nods to R&B, Jazz, the 60s….the list goes on and on.
Janelle Monae makes me believe in pop music.
She pushes me to really imagine that artists can still hold on to an artistic idea that sets itself apart in unique ways, and not just blindly be driven to produce a chart-topping single. She doesn’t come out on stage wearing a sequined g-string, nor does she sing about clubs or expensive bottles of champagne. She understands that wearing a dress made out of meat one day and taking on a hardcore biker chick persona the next (while probably drenching her naked body in paint and rolling around some New York City street corner sometime in between) doesn’t exemplify anything but shock value.
Shock value, my friends, holds about as much integrity as Richard Sherman’s head when his team wins the NFC Championship.
Janelle Monae may have a schtick, but she operates within the limits of it, and that’s what makes all the difference. What is this schtick, you ask? It’s the Metropolis saga. Enter her alter ego: Cindi Mayweather, the prophetic android pop star and on-the-run fugitive who may be from the past, present, or future in Metropolis, a futuristic dystopian city where she illegally falls in love with a human. Who says this kind of love is illegal? The Great Divide does of course, which is the society that imposes harsh rules in order to regulate freedom and love. How’s that for a grand scheme? Oh, this narrative has “free love” written all over it, and the current political parallels sit right there on the surface of Cindi’s skin-covered chrome head, but agree or disagree with the ideology – this thing is done with class.
Suite IV makes up tracks one through ten, while suite V finishes up tracks eleven through nineteen. With three interludes (which include radio spots and various broadcasts that deepen the saga of Cindi Mayweather) and two Electric Overture sections which introduce each suite, we get a actual total of fourteen full-length songs, each skillfully crafted and moved into their proper placement in their respective suites. The overtures and interludes only add to the overarching theme of the record; there’s no filler here.
Suite IV, at face value, is easily the most accessible one, and gives us four out of the five guest vocalist tracks right from the get-go. Givin Em What They Love is a sludge-filled, mid-tempo jammer featuring the one and only Prince, who backs up Janelle/Cindi as she shreds her vocal chords. The almost seamlessly mixed Q.U.E.E.N. and Electric Lady feature Erykah Badu and Solange Knowles, respectively, and follow in all their funky, soul-pop glory. Both stretch to almost five minutes, and the time passes without even a glimpse at the clock. The show-stopping third single from the record, Primetime, is a duet with Miguel, and is probably the best slow jam that I’ve heard in the past ten years. Baby it’s a primetime for our love / Ain’t nobody peeking but the stars above they croon in unison. A solo guitar drones and squeals as the track closes, and leaves the listener with a solid understanding of why the duo’s vocals have dropped out. Pull the curtains.
The styles shift and sway as we continue. We Were Rock & Roll is a complete throwback to a backwards disco in the 1970s, while Dance Apocalyptic is a cocktail that’s one part 1960s girl group, one part Saturday Morning cartoon show, and finished with about as sweet of a sugar rim as you can stand. All it needs is a trio of girls skipping rope in the schoolyard to complete the overarching picture. It was the record’s second single, and I hated it the first time I heard it, thinking Janelle really was becoming Cindi the android and becoming part of the madness that is the American music machine. However, it’s the only track on the record that even remotely sounds like it does, and the more I listened, the more I loved it. Look Into My Eyes rounds out Suite IV as a smoky ballad, straight out of an iconic James Bond film. How can she get better? Janelle is about as diverse on this record as an ice cream shop. You’ve got all types of flavors, each being distinct, sweet, and satisfying.
Suite V may take a tad longer for the casual listener to get into, as it did me as well. It’s Code doesn’t have single potential, but its easy flow is anything but lazy, and her backing choir that joins her there continues with her into Victory, a track that if you didn’t know better, could have been pulled from a CeCe Winans record. It’s gospel to its core, and if Janelle ever decides to turn her eyes upward to the heavens, I have no doubt she could deliver a killer duet with Kirk Franklin.
The lone track on this record that I don’t really enjoy is Ghetto Woman. It’s a strange, African tribal, 80s synth number that does sound dated, and even though the guitars fly at the end and Janelle speeds through some quick rap verses, it’s not enough to save it. Let her have this lone misstep; it’s the only one!
I picked up one of your photos and put it right back on the shelf, she cries midway through the restrained gospel killer Can’t Live Without Your Love, before she heads into the record’s most experimental, almost ambient Sally Ride. It’s this record’s sleeper hit for sure, and won’t ever touch the radio, but could be transformed into a mindblowing live track. Should I ever get the opportunity to see Janelle live, this would be the one I’d be looking forward to the most. To get lost in your thoughts / Is a very very complex thought / And the things that you find are surprising, she croons. Touche.
Rounding out this monster of a record is the second-to-last free-flowing Dorthy Dandridge Eyes, which sounds like a relaxed Jennifer Lopez outtake where she decided to mellow down with the booty shaking but keep the Latin flavor intact. Record closer What An Experience is a fantastic soul-infused snythpop number that brings to mind something that Chvrches may have come up with if they grew up in the Caribbean in the 1980s and hung out with Gwen Stefani.
To bring this review full circle and quickly speak on shock value again, keep your ears open on that final track. Not since the mid-90s, when I picked up my dad’s Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You record and played Start Me Up, have I ever had that moment where I stopped everything that I was doing, froze, and audibly asked myself, “Wait, did she really just say Baby when I touch…?” Hey, shock value isn’t a lifestyle for Miss Monae. No struggle at all; I’ll let her have it this one time.
Two-thousand-ten’s The ArchAndroid was a spectacular record, and I had no idea how she was going to record a follow up. The bar was set enormously high. With The Electric Lady, this human-loving, time-traveling, boundary-breaking robot with a beating heart may very well have done it. I’m not going to put my foot down and say that it is better than The ArchAndroid, but it’s without question on par, and very well may surpass it depending on the listener’s ear.
The final suites of VI and VII could be her crowning jewel on this masterpiece of a saga. Metropolis isn’t saved yet.
Cindi Mayweather is on the run.
If you had to listen to two tracks: Givin Em What They Love / Primetime