Sunday, December 15, 2013
Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady (2013)
Janelle Monáe is something else. Three years after one of the most startling debut albums in pop history, The ArchAndroid, she achieves what one wishes so many artists did their second time around: she expands and builds on her prior success and newfound stardom while also refining her craft. This last point is especially important for a performer with such imagination and individuality -- ArchAndroid was less significant for its individual songs than for the dynamic and restless nature of Monáe's singing, performances, arrangements and the restlessness of her constant ideas. It was a record that meant to allow you to spend time with one consummate artist -- we can already say, one shaping up to be among the best of our generation.
That element is retained on the sequel, which also feels like a splendid evening spent at the best concert of your life. As before, the "concept" of the album -- something to do with Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a radio station, and lots of robot stuff -- is of little interest to those of us who never felt such things added much to anyone's records, whether the music was good or not. That is, except in the sense that it articulates Monáe's outsider status as a youth, vindicated now that she is celebrated without compromising her identity or her specific idea of integrity. She's a remarkable picture of the evolution in pop; her music isn't about the fact that she is a black woman who's staked out a unique claim on her own image, but that her music celebrates it to such a degree seems to indicate massive progress. She may be the first rock star to feel like a singular 21st century presence, futurism or no. This is cultivated in part by very old-world behavior on the part of her label, Bad Boy; with a type of confidence seldom now seen, P. Diddy and his staff deliberately conspired to develop Monáe slowly, to let her music progress with the years and let the audience come to her rather than the opposite. The gamble -- and it is a gamble now, even with so obviously luminous a talent -- paid off.
In Monáe's case, obviously, the music is frequently incredible, amounting essentially to a seamless coalescence of pop history in one riveting, magically wrought package. The major difference between this record and its predecessor is that the songs are stronger individually. Monáe cowrote and coproduced each one, and they are each designed as their own entity. They are backward-looking at times, but not in an obvious or tiresome manner. An admiration of Beautiful Music tentatively suggested on ArchAndroid permeates nearly every track, most prominently the Mancini suggestion on the florid noir-nightclub fog "Look into My Eyes" and the love theme that grows out of it, and the loving Bert Kaempfert arrangement on "Can't Live Without Your Love." The masterfully intricate production is equally varied but more seamless, moodier, with a clear progression from radio-friendly dance tracks to more eccentric but equally engaging material. Neither record stands out enormously in quality than the other, but that simply means that in 2010, she already had her ducks in a row.
One of the more interesting quirks of Electric Lady is how it handles Monáe's status in a world that rewarded her amply for self-expression three years ago but now expects even more from her as a result: you've proven yourself, in other words, now prove it more. The mainstream and mainline thought process of The Industry comes through in a myriad of guest spots, which are a testament to her status but also are -- fascinatingly -- burned through very quickly. Here's Prince (sounding better than he has in a while on the hard rock opener "Givin Em What They Love") and Solange on the slow but vibrant title cut that boasts pure-soul horns, closes out with a killer "wooo-hooo" chorus and namedrops Joan of Arc and Mia Farrow. Here's Erykah Badu again on the vibrant single "Q.U.E.E.N." that snakes around ballroom-style and hilariously, semi-sardonically deconstructs the gawking nature of excessive analysis over Monáe's tireless groove. "Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror," etc.
It's not as though these big, red-carpet pop songs aren't adventurous. In addition to lighting up any given moment, they're filled with verbal stuntwork, acrobatic vocals and a French Revolution shoutout; the first single descends into a meandering, bass-heavy horn freakout with hissing from Badu and Monáe for the last minute and a half. It's not as though Monáe wouldn't be good at a straightforward R&B album -- and frankly, I'd welcome something a bit leaner from her without the "suite themes" and weird radio-spot skits -- because we have the slow-jamming Miguel duet "PrimeTime" to show us all that. But intriguingly, all of these songs run one after the other for the first third of the album -- then with the guest stars out of the way, Monáe seems more than ready to move on. Without anyone else on the wings, she blows out into the stratosphere starting on the expansive "We Were Rock & Roll" and never looks back.
This is when we get to the good stuff. Monáe's preoccupations manifest everywhere: as enterprisingly elaborate production, as passionate singing, as clipped and robotic singing, as every bold, fresh, adventurous, strange thing she can come up with, but the album requires no "kitchen sink" disclaimer, not when its gathering up of threads and memories in and out of Monáe's consciousness and her penchant for crowd-pleasing manifests itself so warmly. Much as she may talk about droids, Monáe's strength is that she is always nothing less than a human being who loves music and loves playing it. That no one else has thought of revising "Tequila" into some joyous breakout with a smash-smash-bang-bang chorus ("Dance Apocalyptic," of course) shouldn't surprise you but that Monáe is the one to do it should not.
Monáe had investigated seemingly everything by the end, which is not much of a feat; Beck used to do this kind of thing with far less heartfelt investment, right? But "What an Experience" is more than some Ariel Pink lampoon of soft rock -- it's an improvement upon the music it draws on because it draws equally upon her memories of that music and the attendant feelings. The same for the synthpop of the brilliant "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes," the lush easy-listening sonics of "Sally Ride." It wouldn't be reasonable to suggest that Monáe improves on Stevie Wonder's records, uncannily evoked (Fulfillingness era, no less) on "Ghetto Woman," ditto Michael Jackson's on "It's Code," but the implications of her ability to effortlessly conjure up both while maintaining her unmistakable identity are obvious.
What's happening here is that Monáe is going all the way with her career as an act of extended ownership -- that is ownership of herself and of her image, yes, but also ownership of the past and of her own iconography. She sees the past in the future, and the other way around. She sees herself as fully prepared to assert her own voice as having a place in this jumbled-up pop music continuum, and she has every right to do so. It's not that "It's Code" is even a precise Jackson revision, it's a complex and tentative love song that channels Jackson but also finds a perfect voice for complex emotions, so perfect it's almost emotionally taxing to listen to it. She loves what we love, but she's possessed of the voice and the genius to express and respond to it all, and with such detail! (There's so much to discover here, and already there are moments -- like her "let me hear you say naaaaa" as "Victory" fades out -- that one senses will be pored over and adored for years to come.) If she sticks to this, she will be perhaps the formidable talent of our time. It already seems just about impossible not to love every freaking thing about her. It's not wishful thinking to suspect that this boundlessly delightful album is only the beginning.