Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady

source: Warner Music

Janelle Monáe, despite all the raves that she garnered from debut album The ArchAndroid, the immediate accessibility of her music, and live performances that should have been emblematic of 21st century pop culture, is still very much the overlooked superstar. She’s the spiritual successor to popular music’s touchstones – a continuation of Bowie’s conceptual Ziggy Stardust persona, Prince’s icon status that made him more than human, and the energy and unrestrained vocals of funk’s greatest; Sly, Marvin, Stevie. Yet The ArchAndroid’s conceptual infallibleness and Monáe’s clear as day talent didn’t translate into sales, a subject that has led to many op-ed pieces offering theories as to why that was. One of which claimed that radio was put off by the sci-fi concept and her Cindi Mayweather persona, if true, then that would explain why sophomore album The Electric Lady dialled back the science fiction influence on her music.

This is not to say she sold out (that’d be uncharacteristic of Monáe) and abandoned the classical Fritz Lang android-human struggle as class warfare, it’s just that she’s made it less overt. For one, the cover album has Monáe (multiple Monáes, really) looking as human as ever as opposed to her automaton counterpart on the first album. Then the album’s narrative is only given life in the short skits while the lyrics make less obvious references to the overall Metropolis storyline (it’s a prequel by the way), instead she added a new, more universal layer to the android-human sci-fi trope, that of queer love. If The ArchAndroid is about breaking free from societal oppression, The Electric Lady is about embracing being a freak (in society’s eyes that is).

Perhaps due to the subject being of a personal nature – the album feels like a coming out party at times – it makes Monáe more approachable. That Prince-esque quality of her being above us regular folks dissipates and songs of empowerment felt, well, actually empowering – ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ is so mightily declarative of its feminist and queer-positive missive, it might as well be the official song for 21st century feminism. If we had an issue with the last record, it was how nebulous her call for ‘rebellion’ can get. Here, it’s more focused and relatable, and that generates empathy from the audience: Cindi Mayweather the android is finally human!

There are other queer-friendly pop stars of course, but the calculated weirdness of Lady Gaga uses queer as a prop much like Miley Cyrus uses (perceived) ‘black’ culture. Something she does so that she can do a little shout out on Twitter and get thousands of RTs. Artistes like Monáe and Frank Ocean make queer statements with subtlety, making them feel more genuine. They’re part of their personal narrative, not just their star personae. Alternatively, it could just be the vast difference in talent – of course the better artiste would make the same sentiment sound better.

As it was with the previous record, Monáe is co-signed by numerous music greats. Incredibly, some of these greats actually grace the new album – Prince himself opens the first real song of the album, ‘Givin’ Em What They Love’. When was the last time Prince agreed for a guest feature?! If this were anyone else, the diminutive legend would have dominated the track. Not so much with Monáe. Prince bows out of the heavy funk rock track (sounding much like the peak of his career, pre-symbol self) to let the newly-anointed Queen shine as she closes the song. Then there’s Erykah Badu on the aforementioned Parliament-Funkadelic-influenced ‘Q.U.E.E.N’, whose presence is almost ceremonial, like an abdication.

The Electric Lady also features artistes who like Monáe herself are destined for greatness. Miguel recently managed to make Mariah Carey fun again, here he goes toe-to-toe with Monáe on the fittingly named ‘Primetime’. It’s a simple Pixies-sampling ditty that’s got her singing in mid-register about throwing a love parade. Even Beyonce’s hipster sister joins in on title track ‘Electric Lady’, in which Monáe drops another killer rap verse while Sol plays the supporting role of a backup vocalist.

Ultimately though, these guest features are nothing compared to the rich tapestry of music presented on The Electric Lady by the micromanagement of Monáe and her Wondaland partners; Kellindo Parker, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, Chuck Lightning, and Roman GianArthur. All served to create the kaleidoscope of psychedelic funk rock, r’n’b, soul, motown, pop, and the Ennio Morricone-sounding cinematic score that opens the album. The end track is called ‘What an Experience’, exactly what you’d exclaim after listening to the entirety of The Electric Lady.

It’s very likely that Janelle Monáe’s status in the mainstream won’t change even after softening her androgynous looks and sci-fi inclination. But in hindsight, it’s always a silly thing to do as a critic to bemoan your favourite artiste’s lack of popularity, JUICE loves Monáe and we hope you do too. That’s all that matters in the android revolution – support and the hope of recruitment.

LISTEN TO: ‘Primetime’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: Bowie, Prince, Sly, Stevie, Marvin

1. Suite IV: Electric Overture
2. Givin’ Em What They Love (feat. Prince)
3. Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu)
4. Electric Lady (feat. Solange)
5. Good Morning Midnight (Interlude)
6. PrimeTime (feat. Miguel)
7. We Were Rock n’ Roll
8. The Chrome Shoppe (Interlude)
9. Dance Apocalyptic
10. Look into My Eyes
11. Suite V: Electric Overture
12. It’s Code
13. Ghetto Woman
14. Our Favorite Fugitive (Interlude)
15. Victory
16. Can’t Live Without Your Love
17. Sally Ride
18. Dorothy Dandridge Eyes (feat. Esperanza Spalding)
19. What an Experience