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Enter Janelle Monáe

In my last piece about music for Global Comment, I bemoaned the state of contemporary rnb and hiphop, which has few bright spots as far as I’m concerned—a malaise I should hasten to add it shares with most pop, indie and non-dubstep electronic music (dubstep is peeking its head into the overground with Magnetic Man, which gives me some hope). It’s like fast food – music’s everywhere, but the choices all make you feel slightly queasy and leave you hungry an hour later.

What I did mention was the one great exception in contemporary rnb/soul/hiphop – the inimitable Janelle Monáe. After a buzz building EP in 2007 called Metropolis Suite I, Monáe’s debut album The ArchAndroid Suites II and III has been gathering an ever-growing following since its release in May this year. In this age of instant gratification and quickly forgotten hype magnets, Monáe appears to be the real deal – a genuine artist, capable of stunning artistic invention and popular appeal.

Of course, no piece about a female artist would be complete without Diva Battlebots, so here’s the inevitable comparisons – she’s like Beyonce but interesting more than twice a decade, and like Gaga except she’s good with music as well as fashion. Now that my crash on the Feminist Stock Market has hit rock bottom for that spot of bitchiness, moving on to the actual substance of Janelle Monáe’s work. 

While her look is undoubtedly striking, what is most stunning about The ArchAndroid is its sheer musicality, its sheer inventiveness. Listening to The ArchAndroid is like hearing most of the 20th century American songbook chopped up into little pieces and reassembled into new shapes. Jazz, soul, hip-hop, rock n roll, Broadway, bossa nova, disco and much more all appear reconfigured in Monáe’s album. And all of this, as the EP and album titles might tell you, is wrapped up in an Afrofuturist science fiction wrapping. For a first album, it is as impressive as it is ambitious.

After a scene setting overture, the distinctive voice of Saul Williams kicks off the album proper with a manifesto of an intro – “cyborg, android, d-boy, decoy, water, wisdom, tightrope, vision, insight, stronghold, heartless, ice cold, mystery, mastery, solar, battery” – but it’s undeniably Monáe’s song, with her spitting her own spoken word verses and the distinctive “these dreams are forever” hook that seals the deal. Similarly, high profile guest Big Boi from Outkast adds a nice touch to “Tightrope” without ever outpowering Monáe or sounding superfluous. It’s a musical tightrope more experienced artists have fallen off many a time.

But it’s when she’s by herself that Monáe shines most. On “Locked Inside,” for instance, she emotes over a disco groove complete with the distinctive drum roll from Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” soaring over a pitch perfect MJ-aping bridge until the vertigo-producing up-down bossa nova chorus comes in. And then of course there’s a slightly psychedelic guitar solo. Natch.

On “Oh Maker” she marries a classically folk melody and guitar strum with a crisp breakbeat in the verses, until her vocal lifts off in the chorus, sounding like something of a cross between Lauryn Hill’s upper register. From there, it’s just a pause for breath before the stomping distorted rock of “Come Alive” where Monae wails like there’s something important at stake. And then onto the vocoder triphop of “Mushrooms and Roses,” which thoughtfully relieves you of the burdens you’d felt wondering what Daft Punk, Portishead and Jimi Hendrix would sound like together. Phew.

The high-pitched vocal of “Wondaland” verges on novelty, as does the interpellation of “Hallelujah” (a song I could frankly go a million years without ever hearing again, thank you very much EVERY TV SHOW EVER) but the marimba laced groove is simply too infectious to ignore. “57821” marks the reappearance of the folk motif, with Monáe’s voice melding beautifully with guests Deep Cotton over the 6/8 rhythm. The horn and string sections to the jazz track “Babopbye Ya” sound like a million dollars, which in this age of sampled instrumentation, they may well have cost.

The point is, if you haven’t noticed, the girl’s got serious range. As Bender once said on Futurama apropos Beck, she transcends genres even as she reinvents them.

Some reviewers have faulted Monáe for her virtuoso level chameleonic vocal ability. And it’s true, at first listen, some songs sound like they could have been recorded by another artist entirely. But after you’ve spent some time in Monáe’s futuristic world, you’ll find the at-first shocking leaps make total sense. As she says on “Faster,” “I’m shakin’ like a schizo… I’m just another little weirdo… you can call me your hero.” Indeed.

Matthew Perpetua, in his Pitchfork review, suggested that The ArchAndroid is “as bold as mainstream music gets, marrying the world-building possibilities of the concept album to the big tent genre-mutating pop of Michael Jackson and Prince in their prime.” Though her vocals sound like a female Michael Jackson at times, Monáe most resembles Prince in ethos, with in her ability to pull sounds from anywhere and weave them into a coherent form.

But what is even more stunning is that in this day of the apparently dead monoculture, where iTunes has supposedly rendered the album as obsolete as an 8 track, where mainstream artists appear afraid to even sneeze in front of a microphone without a focus group, Janelle Monáe has come up with a bold concept album that only makes sense when listened to together, where your appreciation grows with every listen. And her jawdropping performance on David Letterman showed she’s more than capable of backing up the studio wizardry live.

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was fond of saying that the best art, like Kafka, is untimely, it simply makes its own rules. Janelle Monáe is making her own rules, and we can only hope that she continues to.

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