The best albums of 2013: No 9 – The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe

After an eccentric debut, Janelle Monáe's second album brought an irresistible whirl of pop, soul and R&B to the mainstream

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"I am sharper than a razor," declares Janelle Monáe on On Givin' Em What They Love, and her fierce proclamation of her ability to deliver on that aptly named track from her second album, The Electric Lady, indicates her confidence as a performer. But then, Monáe has every reason to feel confident considering her featured artist is Prince: while his influence is stamped across her album, he pales in comparison with her on their track together. The funk melodies, gluttonous basslines and unapologetic vocal power are evidence of her ear for production as well as her playful relationship with the mainstream.

In 2010, when she released her debut album, The ArchAndroid, the world was not ready for Monáe. (It was the Guardian's No 1 album that year, but didn't really have the mainstream moment it deserved.) Her debut was a wild frenzy of funk and strangeness which established her as a voice to be heard, but its lack of commercial success may have been due to its moments of inaccessibility. With The Electric Lady, however, she offered up thrilling pop elements alongside skewed futuristic sounds and exquisite R&B vocals.

For those who are not totally familiar with how eccentric Monáe can be, this is a woman who professes to bathe in her tux and believes in the power of androids. Inspired by paintings, The Electric Lady is part of her Metropolis concept series about a society from the future, waging war on peace and love, that can only be saved by Monáe's alter ago, Cindi Mayweather. What could so easily have been dismissed as the work of an overexcited art student left alone with a load of hallucinogens is saved by her songwriting.

Throughout the record you can imagine her expression – the scowl for We Were Rock & Roll, the faux surprise as she asks if she's a freak on Q.U.E.E.N. The ferocity of her expression reminds us to listen: there's no option to let the music wash over you.

At a time when mainstream R&B is often paired with gloopy basslines, lo-fi injections and hyper-stylised production, Monáe instead packs each song with huge, rich vocals, and big-band textures. To call her songs R&B feels reductive, because there's so much more here.

Reading on mobile? Listen to The Electric Lady on Spotify

By collaborating with artists such as Miguel and Solange, Monáe shows her awareness of R&B trends without submitting to them. There's no sign of Dev Hynes's brand of restrained echo, or Mike WiLL Made It's-style sensuality: her style is all her own. If anything, Erykah Badu's soulful electro-funk in New Amerykah Part One and Two seems like the closest comparison, and Badu duly appears on Q.U.E.E.N.

From the I-don't-give-a-crap-if-you-get-this mood of the shrill, operatic Look Into My Eyes to the delicate yearning of Can't Live Without Your Love, or the warm, maximalist, jazz-rich melodies of Ghetto Woman, this is an album charged with delight at its own exhibitionism. In short, The Electric Lady saw Monáe take charge of her identity as an artist and deliver what she said she would: an electric album.


Kieran Yates

The GuardianTramp

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