Janelle Monae Strikes Again with The Electric Lady
Janelle Monae’s debut from 2010, The ArchAndroid, was an astonishing display of ambition bringing in elements of funk, soul, hip-hop, rock, folk, and pop both rambunctiously weird and radio friendly, all executed with the freak-flag-waved-high oddness of Outkast in their Stankonia heyday. The Electric Lady follows up in much the same vein. Representing parts IV and V in her sci-fi odyssey and similarly restless musically, in many ways this is the record we expected; but it’s also different, for the first time in her career Monae seems to be singing about herself, ever eager to inspire, here she’s also eager to connect. Whether that’s by making you dance to barn burning funk or swoon to a soul baring ballad depends on which style she’s decided to master next, but the effect is consistently stunning.
The range of styles on display here really is impressive, but it never feels like genre hopping. That’s because every excursion feels like an extension of her already established sound. The orchestrated string interludes aren’t jarring because somehow they feel like they SHOULD follow high energy funk. Latin percussion, spy-movie themes and classical guitar were clearly designed to lead into sketches (more on these later) about robot DJs. I don’t know why these work, but in the midst of this album the juxtapositions are above reproach. You could argue (and many do) that this is possible because of the overarching concept. Much has been made of the narratives at work, and the world building is commendable, but what seems to be lost in any conversation about Monae is how well put together the music really is.
Take “Victory” as an example. A nimble but stout bass line opens with a kick/snare boom-bap from the drums introduce and establish the low end. Descending piano melodies, harp swoops, string swells, and violin plucks are all introduced as motifs. Monae’s voice slides in as guitar and organ are added to the rhythm section. Then the chorus. Her voice soars, the piano and harp parts tug against her, bring her down to earth. A spidery yet silky guitar line is added, we’re launched into the chorus again. The guitar solo from Kellindo Parker, the Mick Ronson to Monae’s David Bowie. His guitar prowess has been Monae’s secret weapon throughout both albums and here he goes straight for the gut. Every melodic sample from the beginning is brought back, Monae digs deep and tells us we’ll find a “greater love in the little things”, and though I have to imagine it’s meant to be interpreted in broader terms the message rings true in regards to her own music. There are very few artists operating on this level*, and even fewer able to pull it off with music this accessible.
Still, with all that said it’s the aesthetic and the story that get the most attention and that drive the story here. Lyrically, The ArchAndroid was very much concerned with the outside world. Robotic and human overlords, programming and other nameless powers were continuously forcing her to conform, and the music was a stand against it. Protest music that scanned as interstellar funk, the characters in these songs were more concerned with escaping the present, finding solace. The Electric Lady does away with any defined narrative constraint, as most of these songs don’t make a direct reference to her Wondaland universe. Instead we’re given a handful of skits to move the story along, and while they can admittedly drag down repeat listens they give us possibly the best summation of Monae’s current mission: “We are jamming, dancing, and loving/don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass”. The threats at hand are no different, but the approach is new. Instead of raging against the powers that be she’s chosen to create on her own terms. In the latest incarnation of Wondaland there is no running from threats, instead it’s a call to create, inspire, and share, a focus on building a new world, not tearing down the old. There are very few artists working with such grand ambitions, but with The Electric Lady Janelle Monae is leading the way.
* And much of this credit should be given to producers Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder