RATE THE ARCHANDROID:
There are an infinite number of artists that you could compare Janelle Monae to – in fact, you can probably find reviews that mention almost every significant musical influence of the past half century in conjunction with her work. Michael Jackson. James Brown. George Clinton and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. Nina, Ella, Etta, Eva. There are touches of Jimi Hendrix, of Bob Dylan, of The Beatles, of Nat King Cole. The orchestras draped across the album recall John Williams’ flair for the dramatic and Antonin Dvorak’s bravado. The list goes on.
It’s a heady mix, and a testament to how far outside the norms Janelle Monae’s music falls. It’s futuristic music with a retro feel. Or maybe it should be described as rap- and spoken-word-laden techno pop with an R&B vibe. Or is it indie ballads with beats and synths mixed in? Or maybe it’s…
I’ll stop myself right there before I get carried away. Describing Monae’s influences is an exercise in futility – I doubt even she can deconstruct and synthesize the myriad flavors mixed into the melting pot that is The ArchAndroid. Let’s leave it at this: This album is like nothing you’ve ever heard before and simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard before.
I’ll say something right now, before we get too far into this review. I am not convinced, as many music writers seem to be, that Janelle Monae is God’s Gift To Music. I don’t think that The ArchAndroid is The Most Innovative Album In Modern Music or A Legendary Album Of Epic Proportions. I just want to get that out of the way off the bat; This album is really good, yes, but it is far from perfect. I feel a little bit like I’m raining on some parades, but let’s keep things in perspective. OK.
Arranged in a series of suites, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) and the Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP that preceded it tell the story of an android (Monae as #57821, Cyndi Mayweather) who has fallen in forbidden love with a humanoid and is consequently being hunted for disassembly. The year is 2719. The place is Metropolis. The story is trippy.
It’s a gutsy move for what is essentially a debut album. Futuristic concept albums, with rare exceptions (Deltron 3030, Ziggy Stardust), often seem forced and farcical. When they succeed, it’s often despite their premise rather than because of it. But with Monae it’s a good move – it allows her to fluidly cross genre lines without being questioned. It gives her a hook to hang her prodigious voice upon, and allows her to position a 70 minute epic as a cohesive album rather than a track-by-track slog.
Perhaps most importantly, Monae doesn’t seem over-committed to driving home the futuristic storyline; never on the album does Monae sacrifice the music for the gimmick. In fact, the narrative of The ArchAndroid is so fuzzy as to nearly be rendered incomprehensible at times – those not familiar with the first EP in this trilogy of suites might not even have the context necessary to understand it. There are inconsistencies that throw the plot into question. Why is Big Boi rapping about MacBooks on standout track “Tightrope”? And if she’s Cyndi Mayweather, why does he call her Monae in the intro? What is Of Montreal doing here? And why is Kevin Barnes doing a Scissor Sisters impression?
Those inconsistencies can be overlooked, though. The album is stellar. But I still have reservations about calling this a truly great album, maybe because I have heard what Monae is capable of on Metropolis: Suite I. On that EP, she is potent – it’s a powerful declaration of her unique persona, her powerful voice, her individual style. Those qualities are still present on The ArchAndroid, but they’re hidden. Diluted and submerged below less important elements of the songs. Monae has said that her Metropolis epic is in part inspired by The Matrix; if that’s the case, The ArchAndroid just might be Matrix Reloaded. Tracks like “Dance or Die,” “Oh, Maker,” and “BaBopByeYa” are great, but nothing quite matches the sheer brazenness of EP standout “Sincerely, Jane.”
There’s so much going on in this chock-full-o-songs album that I find myself nearing the end of my review without having spent a ton of time talking about what the album sounds like, beyond the fact that it’s an amalgam of styles. Hell, I could probably spend another thousand words just talking about the first suite. But in the end, I think Monae herself sums up the album’s multi-directional vagueness best in the album’s final track, “BaBopByeYa” – one of the best cuts from The ArchAndroid. Putting both the feel and the plot of the record into a single stanza, she says, “In your hair there is a symphony, your lips a string quartet. They tell stories of a Neon Valley street where we first met. Now somewhere time pursues us, as we love in Technicolor. But I dwell in silence on your words which move me like none other.” It’s poetic and it’s definitive. The album sounds exactly like what you would expect from someone raised on orchestras and Parliament Funkadelic – the Venn Diagram cross section between Mozart and Mos Def.
The ArchAndroid is a feat, an accomplishment. It’s something to be proud of. But is it something that I will revisit over and over again? Maybe not. I’ll hit up the key tracks for sure. And sometimes I’m sure I’ll throw this album on in the background for a soulful but upbeat feel. I think when I’m really looking for the essence of Monae, though, I’ll turn to the first movement of the Metropolis trio. Words by Chris Barth.
79 — Great. Great. A stand-out in its genre. Multiple listens demanded! [Rating Scale]
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