Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady – review

Janelle Monáe has big ideas and great songs – but can she turn them into major commercial success this time round?

On the website of the Wondaland Arts Society, the Atlanta collective of which Janelle Monáe is a linchpin member, there is a video treatment for her most recent single, Dance Apocalyptic. Most of its ideas ended up on the cutting-room floor, but they offer at least some clarification about about the future dystopia that Monáe's albums depict. It is a world in which humans are forced to wear cages on their heads, presumably by a totalitarian regime with a thing about heavy-handed symbolism. Even then, they look down upon androids, which would of course include the android/singer Cindi Merryweather, the persona Monáe introduced – even giving interviews in character – on her 2010 album, The Archandroid.

It's tempting to say that anyone venturing into Monáe's invented world needs all the clarification they can get. Apparently a prequel to The Archandroid, the plot line of The Electric Lady seems broadly to involve Merryweather being sidetracked from her revolutionary fervour by a romantic entanglement. Despite a variety of spoken-word interludes, quite what's meant to be going on at any given moment – or what, if anything, it's supposed to be an allegory for – remains very much open to question. Nevertheless, Monáe's burgeoning lesbian fanbase might be intrigued to note that there seems to be a distinct gay subtext to proceedings, from the voice on Our Favourite Fugitive that angrily cries "robot love is queer" to the climax of Givin Em What They Love: "She followed me back to the lobby, she was looking at me for some undercover love." Some of the imagery is admittedly pretty oblique, – Dance Apocalyptic's visit to "the girls room", where "kissing friends" rapidly turns into "exploding in a bathroom stall" could just as easily be about the onset of norovirus as an eruption of Sapphic lust – but it's not too outlandish to read the album as depicting a relationship between two women, or a female android and a woman called Mary: "Is it weird to like the way she wears her tights?" ponders Q.U.E.E.N. "Am I freak because I love watching Mary?"

It seems faintly ridiculous typing this, given that it's 2013 and not 1952, but the very fact that a mainstream R&B artist has released an album open to that interpretation feels an impressively bold move. Even in a post-Frank Ocean world, the charts aren't exactly awash with stuff like this: it seems unlikely that anyone's going to react to The Electric Lady with a roll of the eyes and a stifled yawn of, "Oh, dear God, not another one of those apparently lesbian-themed sci-fi R&B concept albums." What, if any, effect it has on Monáe's commercial standing is an interesting question, particularly given that The Electric Lady frequently sounds like a push for the kind of major success that eluded its predecessor, much beloved of critics – who noted its roots in both the 70s role-playing of David Bowie and the Afrofuturist tradition of black musical sci-fi that includes Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, electro pioneers the Jonzun Crew and Detroit techno artists Underground Resistance and Drexciya – but relatively coolly received by the public. Since then, Monáe has guested on Fun's We Are Young, a single that sold nearly 7m copies in the US alone – not many of them, one suspects, to people much interested in Monáe's place in the Afrofuturist tradition of Sun Ra and Drexciya.

The Electric Lady certainly dials down the psychedelic aspects of The Archandroid – shambolic Elephant 6 collective members Of Montreal have been replaced on the list of guests by more blockbusting names, including Miguel, Erykah Badu and Prince. At its least interesting, on Primetime and We Were Rock'n'Roll, it replaces psychedelia with straightforward R&B decorated with power-ballad melodies, the kind of thing you could imagine being covered on The X Factor. That said, her quest for a wider audience certainly hasn't impacted on Monáe's eclecticism. The Electric Lady pinballs from one expertly rendered musical imitation to another: everything from smooth Delfonics-like soul on It's Code, to sultry pre-rock'n'roll torch song on Look Into My Eyes, to Dorothy Dandridge Eyes' sharp rendering of slick late-70s jazz-funk and the noirish film themes found on two instrumental "suites". These demonstrate Monáe's keen ear and excellent taste, and the writing often elevates them above the level of pastiche. An audible tribute to Music of My Mind-era Stevie Wonder it may be, but Ghetto Woman is such a fantastic song that it becomes a rare thing: a homage that doesn't make you wonder why you don't just go and listen to the original artist instead.

But there's no doubt Electric Lady is at its best when it shakes free of its influences and ventures into more original, even iconoclastic territory: "I'm tired of Marvin asking me What's Goin' On," she sings on Q.U.E.E.N., while the superb ballad Sally Ride conflates the chorus of Mustang Sally with the story of the US's first female astronaut, its dramatic orchestration battling with squealing distorted guitars. Dance Apocalyptic offers a gleeful mix of end times dread, playground chant and ukulele, while Victory's swirling funk is disrupted by decidedly unfunky militaristic drum rolls. Best of all is Givin Em What They Love, driven by a rattling, bleak guitar riff and dashes of organ, over which Prince offers an explosive guitar solo and a vocal that wraps itself around Monáe's. The temptation when working with a legend would be to give him a dominant role, but at the end he fades out, leaving her singing over heaving strings and scattered bursts of backing vocal: she's treating him as a peer. Time will ultimately tell whether that's an act of hubris or a statement of fact. At its best, The Electric Lady is audacious, intrepid and brilliantly executed: enough to make you bet on the latter.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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