With her debut album The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe has hit the scene with the sound of something hurtling from the cosmos at a great speed. We have here a unique voice and a powerful sense of storytelling not seen in a new artist for quite some time, and yet throughout the unfamiliar flows a healthy sense of good old fashioned pop music. The story that underpins this brave new world began on Monáe’s 2008 EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, and continues here with the main character, an android by the name of Cindi Mayweather. Condemned to be disassembled by the Star Commission for falling in love with a human, she has now returned from the future, messiah-like, to save a community of androids – an impressive concept for even the most proggy of musos, let alone a young black woman who once dreamed of starring on Broadway.
To say The ArchAndroid is a dizzying blend of genres would understate its impact. Monáe and her collaborators dip into such wide-brimmed melting pot of styles that to list each one would be a lengthy task. The nebulous pigeonholes of R&B, jazz, rock, classical and folk all get a look in, but it’s perhaps Monáe’s amalgamation of other artists’ best bits that is most exciting. We have in this young lady a fiery blend of James Brown and Andre 3000, a touch of Michael Jackson and a Grace Jones glitterbomb shower. Hyperbole? It really isn’t. And just as reviewing this album is not an easy task, in some ways listening to it isn’t either. It shapeshifts like a crazy, funky dream, revelling in its ability to stuff your ears so full that it is hard to know what the hell just happened. By the time it finishes you have almost forgotten how it began. But, like riding an eighteen-loop, monolithic rollercoaster, it leaves a strong urge to experience the rush all over again.
The album is formed of two epic “suites”, each with their own swooping classical intro which serves to create a sense of grandeur that would be audacious if what followed wasn’t of such a high standard. Things crack off at a frantic pace with the Latin-tinged ‘Dance Or Die’, a hypnotic, hands-aloft rap with a spoken-word turn from performance poet Saul Williams. The aptly named ‘Faster’ keeps the pace with a funky, shimmering pop song that informs us with the voice of a young Michael Jackson that she is “shaking like a schizo.” The upbeat pop continues with ‘Locked Inside’, the tipping point coming with the powerful moodswing of the pastoral ‘Sir Greendown’, a slice of psych-folk that’s more Beth Gibbons than James Brown and lyrically resembles a traditional English ballad. Only with cyborgs, obviously.
Lulling us to a calmer pace at this point is, however, but one of Monáe’s many tricks. Just as we are floating along on a dreamlike cloud of serenity the next track throws you into a whole different place, a ‘Cold War’ in fact. This nightmarish jolt happens more than once and always packs the same punch, perhaps most forcefully as the beautiful ‘Oh Maker’ slides away to greet the sharp metal of ‘Come Alive (War Of The Roses)’ – a transition to leave you unsettled and totally hooked. Both songs are shining examples of Monáe’s hugely impressive pipes; it is rare that we hear a singer able to combine earthy, folk-like intonation, bend that round to near Mariah-style scale soaring (the note Monáe hits at the end of ‘Come Alive’ is truly alarming and needs to be heard to be believed) and then sing-scream like a deranged rockstar.
By this point it seems fair to question whether Monáe suits every genre, and the answer is ‘possibly not’. With this much fun to be had, however, jumping off the ride isn’t an option. There’s a sense that these songs are aural scenes that must each be played out as part of a grander plot, Monáe’s voice and talent meeting each style head on with a swagger and a playful attitude. For those inclined to feast off the plot there’s no shortage of galactic storytelling within the lyrics, but others may find the songs themselves so strong that the concept becomes less important. Who cannot find meaning within lyrics such as “Oh, Maker have you ever loved? / Or known just what it was? / Or imagined the bitter end of all the beauty that we’re living in?” This is more than robot talk; Monáe has been careful to ensure that much of this album resonates down to Earth with ease.
The inclusion of ‘Make The Bus’ may be deemed a strange one in that the track feels much more suited to its guests Of Montreal than Monáe herself. But as with much of The ArchAndroid it’s so well put together and addictive that it’s easy to forgive any sense of impropriety. Elsewhere, ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Tightrope’ are so catchy and ridiculously danceable that they almost force you out of your seat, but it’s perhaps the finale of ‘BaBopByeYa’ that holds the most power. An exotic ballad of James Bond proportions, it brings out every bit of diva in its creator. More than just a Shirley Bassey moment, this is Monáe’s cry for freedom – the final declaration of Cindi Mayweather’s love “In the face of an awful danger”. The song’s polished surface and soaring strings hide a frightening intensity and depth.
Monáe will no doubt have her critics who complain that all this is rather bonkers, not only in subject matter but also in ambition. It is certainly lengthy and demands a heck of a lot from the listener but The ArchAndroid, for all its weirdness, is thankfully full of rewards. There is a real sense of experimentation and abandon that is so often sought for or imitated by other artists. Not Monáe. It simply shines out of her exuberance. Her confidence in her talent and its ability to dazzle the listener into feeling something – be it to swoon one minute and dance the next – is absolutely infectious. The term “classic album” is so often overused, as is the frequently misappropriated phrase “true star”. But it’s perhaps not overreaching to apply these to Monáe and The ArchAndroid, an incredible intergalactic adventure that quite frankly makes ‘Star Wars’ look like a trip to Devon.
[Bad Boy/Atlantic; July 12, 2010]