Really Good Albums: Janelle Monae’s “The Electric Lady”

Janelle Monae

Janelle Monáe is one of those artists who as soon as they get on your radar, they stay there.

Her first studio album, The ArchAndroid, came out in 2010 to pretty much universal acclaim. Everyone loved it and for good reason. I loved it. It wasn’t just a collection of really good, catchy, multiple-genre hits by someone with a stellar voice. There was actually a narrative thread to the whole album, which is becoming a rarer and rarer thing. The album had not just the radio-ready pop songs that most everyone loves to hear, but it told this futuristic story of an android called Cindi Mayweather who goes back in time to free the world from these people called The Great Divide, who hate peace and love and freedom and music. So, awesome stuff, right? You have this hero, Cindi Mayweather — who I kind of envision as Monáe herself — and as you listen to the album you have to think, “This is kind of badass.” Because it totally is.

ARCHANDROID_COVER

Doing an album this way also gives the artist so much more freedom in what kind of music they want to make. For instance, you pick up  your average Taylor Swift or Kings of Leon album or something like that, and you know what you’re going to get, right? Both perfectly good acts, good music, but they’re so restricted to a particular genre that there really isn’t much variety. Here’s a pop song; here’s a slightly slower pop song; here’s a slightly faster pop song; this song’s about love; this song’s about being sad about love. Mix up the order of the songs on shuffle: no biggie. A song’s a song. And this is all well and good, for the most part. Monáe’s having nothing of the sort.

Instead, she gave herself an alternate persona and an alternate world and went from there. So while the album is packed with lyrically- and melodically-strong, MTV-ready songs, they’re also connected into this larger story through the lyrics and interludes and entr’actes that draw you in.

Short of it is: The ArchAndroid is awesome. Check it out.

So I because I loved The ArchAndroid so much, I immediately had to have her first EP called Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), which is part 1 of this Cindi Mayweather saga. Metropolis: Suite I is really good. The ArchAndroid is much better. So I’ve basically been waiting for her followup for AGES even though in human time it’s only been 3 years which is a perfectly reasonable and acceptable gap between albums.

the electric lady

And it was so worth the wait. Monáe released The Electric Lady last month and I’ve been basically listening to it on a loop since then. As expected, it continues the story of Mayweather, except here she’s a fugitive. In this world, androids and human co-exist together, but everyone’s super racist, because sentient androids: people or no? Anyway, the authorities are after Mayweather for being awesome and such and fighting for android rights and it almost plays like a prequel to The ArchAndroid, since she hasn’t yet saved humanity. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if you’re not into this story that Monáe’s created, even if you like your music straight up with a side of not-thinking-too-much-about-stuff, this album has still got you covered. It’s framed in a way that the interludes are calls into a radio station, so the music you’re hearing is actually the station. What this means is that as usual, Monáe can create songs in a whole variety of styles. She’s got pop and pop-rock, but then here’s this jazz song and then there’s this funky glam rock and disco soul and R&B and dance punk. It’s all over the place and it’s fabulous. And instead of sounding disjointed and unconnected, it’s so well-produced and written that it’s just amazingly seamless and together that you can’t stop listening to it.

Also, Monáe’s voice is one that is distinct enough that you can recognize it even if you don’t know the song, but not so distinctive that it crosses into annoying (that one’s aimed at you, Rihanna). She’s an incredibly strong vocalist, so even if she was just performing this would be a pretty impressive feat. But add to her vocal performance that she wrote and even produced most of these tracks, and you’re dealing with a musical powerhouse.

I’m also particularly fond of Monáe just as public figure as well. She reminds me a lot of a modern incarnation of David Bowie — think Spiders-from-Mars-era David Bowie. Concept albums. Dedication. When you see her in public, she’s always incredibly coiffed and she’s probably wearing a tailored tuxedo and it’s just amazing. She has a look and she’s committed to it. I like her. I like everything about her.

I would genuinely like to link to so many of the songs off of The Electric Lady, because they’re just that good, and most stand alone even if you don’t listen to the whole album, but I can only include so many SoundCloud links in my post. And Monáe’s said that The Electric Lady is parts 4 & 5 of a planned 7 part Mayweather story. And since it’s as if she’s living in a backwards universe where every new album is better than her last, I can’t even imagine what her next effort will be.

I would stab out my own eyes before linking to and recommending iTunes, so instead just buy wherever you normally buy your music or check out her website for all your Monáe-related needs.

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