Album Review: Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady [@janellemonae]
Can you actually chase down a sense of mainstream acceptance while running inside a plane of dystopia? That’s the uphill battle Janelle Monáe’s Cindi Mayweather finds herself in, once more accepting her alternative from the norm lifestyle for suites four and five of her Metropolis series, The Electric Lady. Far more daring and advantageous than its predecessor 2010’s The ArchAndroid, it is here where Monáe’s chase for conceptualism also is her moment for attempting to find better footing in R&B.
Three years ago Monáe’s brashness and blending of funk masterpieces into a crescendo of pop and sliding snaps gave us what may have been that year’s best particular album. Her outlook on crafting material, whether it be in her identity masking suits and slacks or inability to crash the radio is all about control. It’s not about you slowly accepting her; it’s about her being her and you quickly adapting to it.
For every step Monáe has taken to embrace cultural significance from the CoverGirl ads, choice performance spots at Presidential galas and more, there isn’t a signature radio moment for her. Electric Lady actively seeks it, all with the wall-to-wall cosigns of those such as Prince, Erykah Badu and more. Monáe shouldn’t need those cosigns to breakthrough yet those cosigns shouldn’t matter in the end because of what she’s trying to accomplish. The bedspring punch of “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Badu questions about fitting in and spitting in the face of conformity (“but we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground”) and the same goes for the album’s title track, which bounces and flies around with sleazy horns that lull around. It’s Monáe painting her identity with the help of her Wondaland disciples, and it all pushes one single agenda.
Can Monáe find herself in bare moments where she can shed the droid-like image and be a bit more human? Yes, “It’s Code” and “Can’t Live Without You” feature her at possibly her most demure and naked so far. Over a cascading “Purple Rain”-like finish to “Primetime,” a duet with the always sensual Miguel, she submits to not wanting to be mysterious and weird with her newest beau. It doesn’t attempt to stress itself as a power ballad, but rather a slow tempo thump of the heart and mind. That effect caters itself heavily towards the Esperanza Spalding feature “Dorothy Danridge Eyes” which cribs inspiration from Carmen Jones and outfits itself with the unmistakable bass line of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”. Snapping and affirmative, Monáe slinks around, “you love, you love that girl.” From the Stevie Wonder posturing “Ghetto Woman” to the Isley Brothers waltzing splash of “Voyage To Atlantis” in “It’s Code,” Monáe doesn’t leave traditional R&B behind, she just morphs and toys with it to her own personal liking.
The closest analog The Electric Lady has to The ArchAndroid is found on guitar plucking and beach body fun on “Dance Apocalyptic,” where she teases playfully “smoking in the girls room/kissing friends.” And that’s where her latest Bad Boy effort differs in grand scales from its predecessor: it’s fun, it’s daring and at times edgy, but it also relishes in how much it can call back to years and decades prior on the drop of a time. “It’s Code” at times feels like an old Jackson 5 record, each overture feels like lost Quincy Jones sessions with mini-skits on the fictional WDMD (or W-Droid) doing its best pluck on 1984 ideas by questioning everything that’s preceded it before. “I want to know what’s queer if you haven’t tried it?” DJ Crash Crash (played by Chuck Lightning) questions.
What Monáe reaches on “Sally Ride,” empowering the astronaut to Paul Bunyan-like heights, is what The Electric Lady has been searching for throughout the album, capitalizing on a rather grab you by the throat Prince feature for “Givin Em What They Love” by admitting slight defeat (“packing my shit and flying to the moon”) but screeching through synth heavy funk. You’ll get Monáe, she won’t compromise for anything. “I got to make my peace I got to move on,” she says here. She’s made more war than anything else.