opinion by PETER TABAKIS
Talent and personality alone can’t explain Janelle Monáe’s tremendous allure, though she has an abundance of both. Notwithstanding some phenomenal singles, the songs on her early EPs and her 2010 debut The ArchAndroid rarely transcended eclectic style experiments. They worked best as part of a grand conceptual scheme, one alongside another. Monáe’s often charming, idiosyncratic alter ego – the tuxedoed machine-woman who splits her time between an artist collective and a sci-fi movie – can be exhausting in its relentlessness. No – it’s all about those eyes. Whether during an electrifying live performance or a fabulous music video, when Monáe’s lids open wide, almost maniacally, her vast artistic gifts, loony back-stories, and CoverGirl looks lock into a seamless union. She sweeps us away with pure drama.
The ArchAndroid’s intoxicating sprawl of genre bending and futurism, delivered with such elation by Janelle Monáe, at first left me (and a few others) awestruck. I became a true believer: marveling at Monáe’s televised performances, poring over every article and interview, discovering her earlier releases, and paying twice to see her glide about onstage as an opening act (without sticking around for the headliner). Unfortunately, time has diminished The ArchAndroid’s luminosity. What was thrillingly innovative and surprising now seems a bit of a slog. Though its many gems still shimmer (particularly breathtaking cuts such as “Oh Maker” and “57821”), there’s no denying it takes some skip-button digging – past a handful of overwrought pastiches and one true outrage (“Make the Bus”) – to unearth them.
Janelle Monáe thankfully narrows her sonic scope on The Electric Lady, her equally epic and frequently wonderful second album. Bid farewell to The ArchAndroid’s adventures into English folk, disco, prog rock, psychedelia, and easy listening. The Electric Lady is mostly a classic R&B and soul album, sprinkled with some torchy jazz and gospel, and a star-dusting of Ziggy-era Bowie.
Like its predecessor, The Electric Lady is split in two by orchestral overtures. The first opens the album and obviously nods at Ennio Morricone and, by extension, Tarantino’s revenge fantasia Django Unchained. The connection is only reinforced by the swagger and bombast of “Givin’ Em What They Love,” the track that follows. Monáe fulfills the promise of the song’s title with vocal-chord tearing menace, making Prince and his guitar seem superfluous.
There’s so much to relish about The Electric Lady that “Givin Em What They Love” could have served as an alternate title. We might as well focus on the album’s singles, since they’re stuffed into its first half. All of these are equal to, if not better than, The ArchAndroid’s “Tightrope” and “Cold War.” “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a cunning funk tribute to the Other featuring Erykah Badu, explicitly links Monáe to drag culture and further blurs the lines of her sexuality. (Notably, its title is just one letter away from being “queer.”) The “1999”-cribbing boogie “Dance Apocalyptic” bounces and twists, with absurdist joy, to ukulele strumming and finger snaps (End Times be damned). “Primetime,” a crushingly gorgeous duet with Miguel, finds Monáe at her finest both as a singer and balladeer.
After the second overture, The Electric Lady settles into less audacious territory. “Ghetto Woman” a stirring, if obvious, homage to both the Innervisions of Stevie Wonder, and Monáe’s mother, reaches a surprising apex on its breathlessly rapped coda. After multiple plays, “Victory” and “Sally Ride,” which at first seem like unexceptional ballads, unfold into first-rate vocal showcases for Monáe. Solid, retro throwaways like “It’s Code,” “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” on the other hand, underscore the strength of the rest of The Electric Lady and how far Monáe has matured as a songwriter.
For those still interested in the overarching mythology that started with Monáe’s Metropolis EP, The Electric Lady comprises the fourth and fifth “suites” to what she promises will be a seven-part series. Apparently The Electric Lady takes place before the events of The ArchAndroid, as if anyone would have noticed either way. There are continued references to Janelle Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather, her lover Anthony Greendown, the Neon Valley Street district, etc. All of this world-building would be fine if the album weren’t constantly interrupted by radio show sketches that add nothing to the listening experience, and seem jarringly out of place now that rap artists have largely abandoned the convention (praise Yeezus). Blah, blah, blah: Androids this, Fritz Lang that. Does anyone besides Monáe really care?
Janelle Monáe’s insistence on hiding behind fiction has become increasingly frustrating as her songs have largely (and mercifully) moved away from high concept over the years. She claims she wants to transform R&B – I’m right there with her, rooting along. Yet her impenetrable robotic shell is not only a barrier to entry for the casual listener, but a side show for those of us who are otherwise enthusiastically on board. The Electric Lady closes with the stunning simplicity of “What an Experience.” No narrative bells and whistles here, just a warm soul melody and earnest words of love. The electric lady may yet reveal herself to be a creature of flesh and blood. [B+]