Janelle Monae was always known to have a wild imagination. The way in which she conceptualizes herself as an artist is just as wacky as it is brilliant. When the singer made her thunderous debut back in 2010 with The ArchAndroid, Monae hailed herself as the android Cyndi Mayweather (her alter-ego), whom was sent back from the future to save us mere mortals from all things mediocre. The record was met with much praise from critics and gave rise to Monae, a musical mastermind from out of this planet.
On her sophomore album, Monae continues her propensity for pushing the musical limitations of R&B. The Electric Lady is a melting pot of the past 50 years in music, from the influences of Motown’s timeless tunes to the groovy sounds of ‘70s disco. But where most artists use musical inspirations as cheap imitations or remakes, Monae presents it in a way that’s innovative and infectious.
You can hear Monae’s musical diversity best in “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” where she belts against a disco-tinged backdrop filled with psychedelic beats and colorful melodies, and “It’s Code,” which channels a young Michael Jackson during his Jackson 5 days. One of Monae’s most impressive tracks is the Prince-assisted, “Givin Em What They Love,” where the pair’s chemistry is unmistakably electrifying. Accompanied by live guitars, you can hear Monae’s vocal versatility, in which she shows off her more raspy tone and stretches her vocals to chords only fitting for a Prince collaboration.
Then, of course, there’s Monae’s funky collaboration with Erykah Badu on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” where she shows off her superb rap skills. Monae also spits a few bars on “Electric Lady,” (featuring Solange), which sounds like a sister-track to “Q.U.E.E.N.,” packed with funky, soulful instrumentation. Janelle manages to slow things down on the traditional R&B ballad “Primetime,” featuring Miguel and “What An Experience,” an earthy-soul record that is a cross between Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and the sounds of Bob Marley.
Lyrically, Janelle Monae is a wordsmith like no other. While sonically she moves you, Monae uses her lyrics to execute her other musical mission, which is to inspire. “I wish they could just realize all you ever needed was someone to free your mind,” she sings on “Ghetto Woman,” an inspirational tune about the dire straits of Black women. “Carry on, Ghetto Woman…when you cry don’t you know I am crying with you?”
But it’s in The Electric Lady’s interludes where Monae’s brilliance shines through most. Sticking to her Cyndi Mayweather/futuristic theme, each interlude is set in a fictional radio studio from the future, where human and androids co-exist. In Monae’s futuristic world, androids are the “other,” whom are discriminated for their peculiarity, much like in the real world where people are often ostracized for their race, sexuality and gender. A champion for the underdogs, Monae’s imagery is powerful and it comes to life in every artistic stroke she makes.
Musically, Monae makes the unusual feel cool, shaking the status quo of what today’s industry considers exemplary. On Monae’s planet, everything is flipped upside down and no one and nothing is left untouched. The Electric Lady doesn’t just do a good job at retaining the momentum of Monae’s first album; it launches her lightyears ahead of any of today’s contemporary artists. Gimmick or not, Monae is indeed from another planet and time in space – or at least it sounds that way. Regardless, it’s quite the privilege to hear.
–Review by Gerren Keith Gaynor
For more of Gerren’s work, check him out on www.mrgerrenalist.com