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Atlanta-based singer Janelle Monáe has been mentored by OutKast's Big Boi, signed by Diddy, reps a tuxedo every day, and leads a fictional android army. In a world of Lady Gaga's outrageous styling, where high-concept tours—and personalities, and music videos—are the norm, none of this necessarily makes her unusual. What does, however, is her Large HadronCollider approach to musical genres. Her new album, The ArchAndroid—debuting in stores today—is a place where styles collide with great force, and to great effect. Over the next few days, Brentin Mock, a journalist at the New Orleans news non-profit The Lens, Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg, and Shani O. Hilton, a freelance writer who blogs at PostBourgie will talk about The ArchAndroid, and about Monáe. Mock started off the conversation, Rosenberg continued it, and Hilton concludes the discussion here:
The first and only time I saw Janelle Monae perform was in 2007, at Howard University's homecoming fashion show. At the time, I had no idea who this tuxedo-wearing woman with the kinky pompadour was, but within minutes, I was hooked on her. Having attended many a fashion show performance before, I was used to weak, wannabe R&B songstresses and hip-hop entourages 10-deep gracing the stage of Cramton Auditorium. But in the space of a very short set—it couldn't have been longer than 15 minutes—Monae managed to mesmerize the entire audience with her seemingly boundless energy. We were all on our feet, trying to keep up as she vibrated so quickly it was almost surprising she remained in phase with our dimension.
Just as it did with that performance, it took me a few minutes to get into The ArchAndroid. I haven't much use for orchestral openings and fancy filigree on albums, I like getting to the real stuff, so the overtures were skippable. "Dance or Die," what I consider the start, is a nice follow-up to 2008's "Sincerely, Jane," setting the pace for the rest of the record.
My colleague Brentin calls Monae's album "unique, forward-looking, and apoplectic." He's not wrong. But the influences of the past are clearly present in her album. In it, I hear melodies reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and The Last Poets. While Alyssa hears "Sigh No More, Ladies" in "Sir Greendown," I hear Mancini's "Moon River." And the glorious "Oh, Maker" sounds a bit like something Karen Carpenter could have done if break beats existed during her time. And best, that track showcases Monae's exceedingly lovely voice. In fact, one of my two complaints about the album is that it doesn't frame Monae's voice as much as I'd like. While I appreciate the delightful sonic strangeness, sometimes I want to hear more Monae and a little less spastic guitar.
On the other hand, it's immensely refreshing that a vocally talented female artist doesn't just rely on her voice. It's clear that Monae views it as just another instrument in her arsenal. While Alyssa writes, "The ArchAndroid really is part of a movement to erode the boundaries between hip-hop, pop, and rock," I think it's less about a movement and more about Monae's personal ethos. I suspect she's simply absorbed a wide variety of music over the course of her short life and decided to take the best parts and put them all together. That she has an ear for such complex composition is what astounds.
I mentioned I had two complaints about the album. The second is that, unfortunately, The ArchAndroid is just a bit disjointed. Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune, who gave the album a perfect score, writes: "Despite the use of linking interludes, the album sometimes barely holds together as a unified work. But its sweep across genres and eras is exactly the point." I think the variety and scope of it are essential, but it's almost too much. I think the album could have benefited by being a bit shorter and tighter.
But despite these two small issues, I'm still enamored of Monae and The ArchAndroid. Monae wants us to take a trip to Wondaland, but in truth, this album feels a bit like going through Alice's looking glass and taking a long and winding, yet charming, walk through her favorite genres. This, despite the fragmentation, is a good thing.