The Joyful Noise of Janelle Monae

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Shawn Escoffery


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 starts off the conversation:

I must confess that before I listened to one song off Janelle Monáe's new album, I had already decided that she was the most important pop artist out right now. Yes, more important than the Factory Girl Polaroid-pop of Lady Gaga, and yes, more important than the Dreamgirls Hairperm-pop of Beyonce—and I compare Monáe to those two not because they are women, but because they are the only other VIP-pop artists worth mentioning. There's nothing Kanye, Jay-Z, or Justin Timberlake can hold up to what Monáe is doing right now. The closest you could get in the pop world is Lil' Wayne, but it took him roughly 12 years to amass a sound as unique, forward-looking, and apoplectic as The ArchAndroid.

Monáe has given pop music its first Toni Morrison moment, where fantasy, funk, and the ancestors come together for an experience that evolves one's soul. It's been attempted before: Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation, I think, but that failed because it lacked the courage to carry its struggle to the finish, too often interrupted by gooey songs ("Escapade") that reminded us she's still a mere mortal who believes girls just wanna have fun, just like you. Listening to Monáe, I felt a chromatic charge, like Aunty Entity laughing while pointing a crossbow at my heart in the middle of Thunderdome. Yet I still recognized it as blues and funk—a smothered funk, though perhaps at times too thick, too inaccessible, but not so much I didn't want to shake my ass. It was like the first time I read Beloved, or better Song of Solomon—I didn't quite know what to make of it, but I knew I felt 100 feet taller after reading it.

And so it is with The ArchAndroid, which is something of a jitterbug between Prince's 1986 movie Under the Cherry Moon and the 1977 Watts movie Killer of Sheep, and Daughters of the Dust, an exploration of Gullah society in the Southern sea islands. You really don't know whether you want to diagram it, dance to it, or just be dumbstruck. It owes as much to Parliament-Funkadelic as it does to Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler. She is finally doing what a number of artists—particularly black artists—have not been able to do in years, and that's move pop music forward. Kid Cudi couldn't do it. Kanye thought he was doing it, but I'm confident that 20 years from now people will recognize 808s and Heartbreak as an unpleasant side effect. Gaga can't possibly think she's doing it by packaging mediocre dance music in krewe costumes.

But every time I think of Atlanta I can't help but wonder how a city like this produces a Monáe or any of the dozens of musical prodigies who are based there. As the last of housing projects come down in that city, and its public hospital and transportation seem closer to meeting the same fate, its public music remains curiously progressive. You'd be hard-pressed to really classify Atlanta as "The South" when every day it seems to appear more and more like an East Coast-version of Los Angeles, with all of its sprawl, plastic, highways, and diminishing cultural returns. But the music, and the dances, stay fresh, somehow, throughout. Arrested Development, Joi, TLC, Outkast, the Dungeon Family, Goodie MOB, Gnarls Barkley, Ursher, Lil' Jon, Ludacris, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, T.I.—you may not like all of these artists, but you have to acknowledge that each of these has changed the conversation around pop music (some for better, some worse) when they came out.

Monáe continues, if not completes, this cycle. Some may argue you can only trace her influences from Dionne Farris, to Joi—who really is the mid-wife of the neo-soul movement, long before Badu—to Andre 3000, and then Cee-Lo. But if you deny the Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the Jermain Dupri, the crunk and the trap star in Monáe, then you are really missing the point. She has the same individualism fetish cherished by Andre and Cee-Lo while embracing all the uniformity of white-T trapsters, evident in the black-and-white tuxes she and her creative outfit Wondaland Arts Society are found exclusively in. With Monae, we're getting the promise that went unfulfilled with Joi. Right when we thought Joi was going to push the funk right over the edge, she joined the boy's team—Raphael Saadiq's ill-fated Lucy Pearl project—only to get replaced by the much-lesser, but bigger-breasted artist Dawn Robinson of En Vogue, before disappearing altogether only mentioned occasionally as Big Gipp's wife. Monáe is moving deeper into the ionosphere. Yes, it sucks that Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, and Lauryn Hill haven't been making music, but thank Goddess that Santigold, M.I.A., J*Davey, and Monáe have. I'm most thankful for Monáe's androgynous vibe that takes the focus off gender convention and more on how awesome the poetry and melody is, paving the way for New Orleans sissybounce and Chicago juke artists coming up behind her.

Listening to pure bliss like "Neon Valley Street" (yes, the song touched my heart), "Wondaland", "BeBopBye Ya" and the fresh-as-ever "Sincerely, Jane" has let me know that the future of the funk is indisputably in Monáe's ArchAndroid meta-universe. It's Beloved-sized funk. George Clinton has to smoke crack to perform this powerfully. She's created a futuristic narrative and soundscape rivaled only by Mars Volta. But I can't really shake my ass to Mars Volta.

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Brentin Mock is a journalist at the New Orleans news non-profit The Lens.

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