I kept seeing mentions of Janelle Monae’s name come up in a variety of settings but was surprised for a long time to never know a radio hit to link her to. I finally looked up her music and was quite pleasantly surprised with what I found. Considering her connections to the likes of Big Boi and Sean Combs, I initially thought she was some kind of hip-hop artist which I wouldn’t have had much interest in. In actuality, it’s hard to pin down a single style for the eclectic Janelle Monae. She is known for many energetic funky dance hits but at the core she is a very accomplished singer able to belt out R&B and soul, rap, punk, or sing almost operatic ballads. (I’ve seen her labelled as a ‘psychedelic soul artist’ but she actually seems pretty much able to adapt her style and voice to anything she sees fit.) Her personality very much comes out as she sings–playful, energetic, and smart. It’s not a surprise with this versatility that she has since been recognized as an accomplished actress as well. But what really drew my interest in her was finding that her entire solo career is built around the thematic alter-ego of a 25th century fugitive android! Starting with a story line on her independent debut to her third album which weaves together its songs around a “droid-hosted” radio show, she uses the sci-fi motif to address issues of independence (fighting the hegemony of an all-powerful state) and identity (droids revolting against being treated as second-class citizens). She keeps up the theme in her videos as well. You don’t have to be a sci-fi geek to appreciate her vocal talent and amazing song variety but it certainly enhances the enjoyment. For that reason, I make it a part of my opinion of the albums below.
Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2008)
THE STORY: Janelle Monae’s first studio album was probably a bit of an oddity when it was released. Presented as the first suite in a series that would follow, the album opens with a futuristic announcer broadcasting notice of the breach of protocol by Android 57821, aka Cindy Mayweather, falling in love with a human named Anthony Greendown and who is thus now the subject of a Metropolis-wide bounty hunt. This brief tale sets the stage for all that will follow in this and other albums. Though the individual songs of her albums are not necessarily “about” this story (except for perhaps the first two here), elements of the tale or its associated themes are woven throughout all her songs.
THE MUSIC: Musically, this first album starts at a mad dash—the wildly frantic first few songs definitely fit the theme of it being a chase. An angelic-voiced interlude offers a bit of a breather before the excellent “Sincerly Jane” rounds out the original suite with an adventure film-like piece full of scenes from life in a poverty-stricken ghetto and questions as to the (im)possibility of escape. This is definitely an album largely for listening to—there’s not much that can be sung along with as it is heavily stylistic and at times frenetic. The first digital release of the album was later put out as the EP seen here to which a couple of slower jazzy numbers were added at the end. Though nice enough songs they do seem a bit out of place.
The ArchAndroid (2010)
THE STORY: Janelle’s second album The ArchAndroid pushes forward the storyline above particularly through its liner notes. Written as from a modern day asylum director, it presents one Janelle Monae, a patient who is starting to convince him that she is in fact a woman from a dystopian future who was kidnapped and sent into our time after her genetic code was stolen to create the android Cindy Mayweather. Moreover, it is implied that Cindy goes on to become the savior-like Archandroid, one who will destroy the tyranny that droids and humans in the future suffer alike. The album is thus presented as Janelle’s distorted dreams of her future-past. The themes swirl around as you hear mentions of Greendown, spaceships, zombies, and electric sheep–again not presented as a storyline but simply a running motif.
THE MUSIC: Monae’s versatility really shines here as she speeds headlong through dance grooves, punk, psychedelia, sweet ballads, and a host of other styles. The album is actually the second and third suites of her tale. Suite II opens with an classical orchestra overture that quickly morphs into what is largely a set of very upbeat dance songs including hip-hop, new wave, and punctuated by some very odd selections including a folk song, a ska-tinged punk number, a backwards masked chorus, and a reverb-drenched song fitting the sci-fi theme. Suite III starts with another overture, this one more in the vein of movie musicals, and then plunges into another odd assortment of soul, crazed rock, R&B, and folk. While quite an interesting mix and very artfully crafted, it does make the album a bit difficult to listen through as the transitions can be jarring. But the more I listen to it and become familiar with what to expect next the more I enjoy the album as a whole.
The Electric Lady (2014)
THE STORY: The excellent The Electric Lady is divided into the next two suites four and five. Jumping back to future times, it presents its story line in the form of a droid-hosted radio show with station breaks and call-ins that are played flawlessly straight. Edited in this way, and with its song styles swinging a little less wildly, the album flows much better that the previous one. At this point, the on-the-run Mayweather is becoming a cult figure with hints of the messianic status she will eventually gain. The references within the songs are a bit less overt but one still finds futuristic elements in some of the lyrics. Overall, however, the songs focus more on themes of independence and individuality.
THE MUSIC: The first suite (Suite IV) opens with a James Bond type orchestral piece but then blazes through a roster of energetic hits that comprise all of her singles from the album. As they are largely catchy pop and rap, one would swear that the graceful ending piece (reminiscent of 60s scifi theme songs) could not have been sung by the same person—but this just serves to show how much she plans out her singing style for each song. The second suite of the album (Suite V) contains a mix of electro-funk moments in the vein of Stevie Wonder followed by several slow and soulful R&B ballads. It is on these that Janelle really shows her ability to sing. With more catchy tunes, this album is by far the most accessible to the general public of her works thus far but it does not at all lose the originality and flavor of her overall series as it too is loaded with lots of energy and interesting musical twists and turns.
Dirty Computer (2018)
THE STORY: Monae may have originally intended for some of these songs to serve as the next suite in her Archandroid series since they contain computerized imagery akin to her previous ones, but in the end she abandoned that storyline to launch a new (but still sci-fi drenched) one for this album. This time the story is not in the the lyrics themselves—these are much more personal and specific to Monae and push themes social justice themes of racial equality, gender equity, and sexual orientation. Instead, she actually develops a short film (or “emotion picture”) that centers around a character named Jane 57821 in a future society where those who don’t conform to norms are arrested and have their memories erased. The saga follows her through this journey (her odd futuristic memories playing on the screen being the videos for her songs) and ultimately her love for her soulmate stands against deletion. It actually has some amazing footage and imagery throughout.
THE MUSIC: It seems like Monae was trying to prove she truly can do anything musically and filled the first half of her new record with mainstream pop hooks and melodies that fit right in with modern radio (“Screwed”, “I got the Juice”). Yet she keeps her hip-hop street cred as her language and themes are a lot courser than those two could ever get away with, and she adds meaningful rap elements–like an honest rant about having a white friend who gets away with doing the same things that she gets arrested for. The latter part of the album gets back to the signature sounds of her previous works–smooth grooves like on Electric Ladies (“I Like That”) or odd anthemic ballads like on Archandroid (“So Afraid”)–with her common themes of individuality and insecurity. But I particularly like the closer “Americans”; whether you agree with her views or not, it’s nice to see somebody as different as Monae undercutting racist nationalism by proudly asserting their mantra “Don’t try to take my country, baby, I will defend my land. I’m not crazy, baby, I’m American!”