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.

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

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