There have been many reviews of Janelle Monae's recent albums written and published. So why do I feel so possessed to write another one? Because Monae's talent is so undeniable, that regardless of what style of music you are into, you should not deny yourself the ability to experience her music. Growing up through much of her childhood in Kansas City, KS (go Kansas!), Monae's father had drug problems, and her mother was a housekeeper in a hotel, a job Janelle also took alongside her as a teenager. Using music as an escape, Janelle eventually got to go away to college in Atlanta where she met many of the people in her band that still play on her records. Sean Combs (P. Diddy) was so impressed, he took a chance and signed her to his record label, which would allow her the artistic freedom to explore all sides of her music personalities. While artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince loom large in the Monae-verse of inspirations, other styles she inhabits include pop, jazz, funk, hip-hop, folk, psychedelic rock, rockabilly, R&B, Bond-style balladry, and all shades in-between. Her visual style sees her in numerous uniform-style outfits and tuxedos (mostly black and white), throwbacks to her uniform-wearing days from her hotel job. She has the stage presence, energy, and dancing ability of James Brown or Prince in their prime. The Electric Lady is technically her second album, although she had an early EP (Suite I) previously released. That effort featured a few tracks which collectively introduced the Archandroid concept that Monae has mined ever since. A Messianic android from the future (2719 to be exact), Monae has been genoraped and cloned, then time travels back to our current world as Cindi Mayweather, the android who will lead the oppressed out of Metropolis (another inspiration), alter the course of the future, and be reunited with her true love, Sir Anthony Greendown. (This is further explained in the liner notes from her last full length, The Archandroid (2010), featuring Suites II and III).
Admittedly, all of this highbrow conceptualism would hopelessly fail if Monae didn't have the musical chops to back it up. She does, and then some. The Electric Lady is a tighter record than it's predecessor, and while it does feature many of similar stylistic diversions, they are less expansive, allowing Monae to clarify her vision a bit more. While moments of wild experimentation from the previous album ("Mushrooms & Roses", "Wondaland", BaBopByeYa") are less prominent, Monae amps up the energy a bit here, still has her experimental moments, and does so without veering too distantly from her template. The specter of Prince still looms large, and here he even guests on opening dirty-funk track, "Givin Em What They Love". Tracks that follow continue in the funk genre with guests like Erykah Badu (the supreme "Q.U.E.E.N."), Solange (the title track), and Miguel (the Prince-ly ballad, "Primetime"). "We Were Rock and Roll" and "Dance Apocalyptic" flesh out Suite IV, with the former a pop-rock track and the latter a kooky retro-futuristic smash in the waiting. The suite closes with the Bond-esque ballad, "Look Into My Eyes", which Shirley Bassey would have been proud to sing. The track is kept at a minimal 2:18 in an effort to streamline the album so it does not drag, but this song certainly left this listener wanting even more.
Suite V (as with Suite III from the last record) is more varying with tempo and character, however this group of songs feels the most indebted to a singular artist: Stevie Wonder. Songs like "It's Code" and "Victory" have an ease and affability with their quietly melting chord progressions and instrumental parts, including more guitar solos from her supporting cast. "Ghetto Woman" and "Can't Live Without Your Love" are pure-70's Stevie, while "Sally Ride" and "Dorothy Dandrige Eyes" add to themes of female empowerment and history simultaneously, and the optimistic "What An Experience" closes the album in what harkens back to songs like Janet Jackson's "Whoops Now", the hidden closing track at the end of her 1993 blockbuster, Janet. We feel like we have come so far with the Cindi Mayweather story, and while we aren't sure if there will be more story or not (yes, please!), it is a time to stop and reflect on the happiness we have felt through her musical journey so far.
The other Janet-referencing additions to this album are the hysterical comic skits which take place at an urban radio station from the future. Radio callers either support or criticize the android cause, questioning whether or not they can actually function or embody similar values as humans (It's all a bit Battlestar Galactica-Cylon-ey). When a caller insists "Robot love is queer", and the DJ runs to defend androids, one cannot help drawing parallels to the gay community today and how they are becoming able to marry and have equal rights (in some cases) that straight people have had for centuries. It's just one more deep and provocative angle on Monae's vision. Her records may have yet to sell in stacks, but Monae is a unique and special talent deserving of our attention. She really is an artist ahead of her time.