Albums of 2010, No 1: Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)

Was it cerebral hip-hop? Freaked-out funk? Or an updated Innervisions? There is no point trying to pigeonhole the Guardian's favourite album of 2010 – just sit back and enjoy

Some years the most celebrated albums are perfect jewels whose brilliance derives from focus and consistency. Guardian critics' two favourite albums of 2010, however, are more like treasure chests, where the whole point is abundance and some stones may be more precious than others. Yet they point in opposite directions: Kanye West's towards the celebrity self and Janelle Monáe's towards the wider world — Me v Us, as Neil Tennant recently put it when talking about modern pop.
At just 25, Monáe is absurdly, vertiginously talented. Although 2007's Metropolis: The Chase Suite had a cult following, a lot of people's first exposure to her was a YouTubed appearance on Letterman in May, performing Tightrope. Tiny in her tuxedo, she had that rare and compelling combination of razzle-dazzle exhibitionism with a sense of something mysterious and withheld. It was, in the words of the James Brown routine she unapologetically homaged, Star Time.
Nina Simone used to complain that though she moved between styles people always labeled her jazz because she was black. The same goes for Monáe and R&B. It's part of the mix on The ArchAndroid but it's uselessly reductive as a general description. You could extrapolate whole albums from single tracks here: a tough, cerebral hip-hop record from Dance Or Die, an updated Innervisions from Locked Inside, a freaked-out funk opus from Mushrooms & Roses, and so on. She belongs to the tradition of OutKast, Prince, David Bowie and Funkadelic – artists who command so many genres that they become one themselves. The ArchAndroid is proudly OTT, as any record that purports to tell the story of a time-travelling android freedom-fighter from the year 2719 is bound to be, but its excess comes off as generosity rather than bombast. On first exposure the collision of oddball aspiration with old-fashioned showbusiness determination to entertain is dynamite, but it reveals its richness over time. It's an album big and spacious enough for you to wander around in, noticing fresh marvels (like the hymnal folk of 57821 or the Bowiesque Of Montreal collaboration Make the Bus) with each circuit. And though the Broadway-trained Monáe might, with less control, be a mere showboater, shifting roles with look-what-can-I-do alacrity, her performances are oddly egoless. Each change of tone – cutesy to spooky, playful to histrionic, joyous to dazed – is calibrated to serve the song rather than the singer. Instead of trumpeting solitary genius, The ArchAndroid celebrates history and community. In interviews Monáe is quick to position herself as a member of a collective, the Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society (along with her co-writers and producers, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder), the product of a good education (she thanks her old school teachers in the sleevenotes) and the beneficiary of a torrent of stimuli, from Fritz Lang to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Harlem Renaissance to Afro-futurism, Salvador Dali to Philip K Dick. Yet the influences never overwhelm her because the current that crackles through them is fresh and unpredictable and true. No other album this year seems so alive with possibility. Monáe is young and fearless enough to try anything, gifted enough to pull almost all of it off, and large-hearted enough to make it feel like a communal experience: Us rather than Me. She may yet surpass it – let's hope so – but for now, this is one hell of a show.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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