JANELLE MONÁE’S STUNNING DEBUT
Janelle Monáe’s debut LP “The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)” is the best album of this young decade. In a pop landscape dominated by the rehashed New Wave minstrelsy of Ke$ha and Gaga, Monáe’s “ArchAndroid” is a sprawling, time-bending, genre-defying testament to the potential of pop. Following her breakthrough 2007 EP, “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase),” Monáe returns with a dramatic expansion of the futurist themes, musical experimentation and liberatory energy that has taken her from underground to outerspace in a few short years.
Without going into further depth, this is one album (and how rare it is for artists to still take the time to produce a full album of material) that should not be missed. Not to belabor the point, but if you haven’t yet gotten your hands on this album, do so now.
With that said – what exactly is so exceptional about “The ArchAndroid”? Any piece of art has the potential to take on a life of its own, to become much more or much less than what its creator had intended. While nobody can say that Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland Arts Society cohort are anything short of exceedingly ambitious, with an expansive vision and strong sense of purpose, the album they’ve released is even more than the album they recorded. That is, they’ve produced an album with a life all its own, and that album is running roughshod over pop music.
What is most striking on first listen is the range of styles, both musical and vocal, that are on display in “The ArchAndroid.” Monáe belts, coos, raps, croons, shouts and screams, all with remarkable ease, over a backing band that takes on funk, hip hop, folk, rock, pop, opera … It’s dumbfounding. For instance, midway through the album, Monáe shifts from the menacing punkabilly of “Come Alive (The War of the Roses)” to the slow, funky, space-noise of “Mushrooms and Roses.” Even more remarkable – even with all the styles on the album, nothing feels out of place or extraneous. There is a deftness (and def-ness) to Monáe and Co.’s genre crossing that is unparalleled.
Key to keeping the whole project from flying apart is the flow from song to song. The album’s opening gambit of “Dance or Die” (with poet Saul Williams), “Faster” and “Locked Inside” all flow together so that, even though they’re nothing alike, you’re not sure where one song ends and another begins. The album is well-paced; Monáe knows when to slow down for an interlude and when to speed through to upbeat numbers. It hardly feels as long as its nearly 70-minute run-time.
Oftentimes with experimental music there are low moments where the artist loses control of the music, where the music is too much for the artist to handle and it falls apart at the seams or turns bloated and self-indulgent. The opposite is true in “The ArchAndroid.” The only low moments come when Monáe’s creative energy is penned in, when she constrains herself. The lead single “Tightrope” (featuring Big Boi) comes to mind. The song isn’t bad by any measure, but it is held back by the limits of being a single. Even Monáe’s live performances on the talk-show circuit have seemed stilted compared to her usual distinctly raucous and un-choreographed live performances.
Conversely, when the album frees itself, when it is really owning itself and breathing free air, it takes the pop form to new places. “Make the Bus,” a collaboration with indie-pop impresarios Of Montreal, is a gloriously hook-y mess of melody and electronic bleep-blooping. The most compelling song on the album, in my view, is “Oh, Maker,” a soul-folk love song with soft-rock acoustic guitar over break beats and Monáe’s incredible vocal talents on full display.
Indeed, I’ve barely touched on the singing. Monáe is a superlative singer, heads and shoulders above any of her musical “contemporaries.” What is most exciting about “The ArchAndroid” is its promise for the future. That is, its positive vision for a future (embedded in its sci-fi and afro-futurist aesthetics) and the promise of Janelle Monáe and the Wondaland Arts Society. “The ArchAndroid” is an important artistic statement and it just might herald in a new moment in popular music, a moment when “pop” and “important” are no longer thought of as antonyms.
After you pick up the album, don’t forget to catch Janelle Monáe opening for Erykah Badu at the Greek Theatre on June 20.