Sunday, July 1, 2018
Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid (2010)
Janelle Monáe Robinson grew up in Kansas City, a working class misfit whose path of dreaming and dedication took her first to drama school in Manhattan then to Atlanta, where her brilliant career began with her appearances on Outkast's final album, Idlewild. That's the only reason the majority of us knew her name when The ArchAndroid showed up in our orbit at the dawn of this decade; true, it had been preceded by an EP meant to introduce its narrative, but this miraculous release -- shephereded by Sean Combs' Bad Boy Records -- stakes as great and all-encompassing a claim on both authority and uniqueness as any solo artist ever has on a debut album. I recall a genuine speechlessness when I first encountered the record shortly after it was issued; the playful, surprisingly ethereal marriage of glam rock, '60s film and lounge music, classic soul with George Clinton-infected Afrofuturism and Isaac Asimov slash Fritz Lang-derived science fiction boasts a weirdness that translates, seamlessly, to universal charm and artistic expertise so persuasive I'm mildly amazed anyone wasn't instantly converted to the artist's cause. And after eight years of living with the album, it still sparkles, and its intensity and sense of constant surprise still remains.
Monáe is not Beck Hansen. She does not cut and paste, or chop and screw; she paints. Her music stands on its own too well to qualify as pastiche; appreciating it doesn't require a prior intimacy with the strange brew of stylistic reference points she pulls from, which is broader and more culturally learned than what we hear on the vast majority of pop records of any period, even though its key intimacy is with pop itself. As such, a similar love of both the kitsch and high art of pop history enhances one's wide-eyed love of the album for sure, but quite apart from that, the earnest nature of Monáe's pure love of her chosen form rings out above all else: the Fairport Convention-Helen Reddy pastoral crooning of "Oh Maker" isn't tempered by irony. Like Yo La Tengo's version of the anti-rock & roll homophobe Anita Baker's "My Little Corner of the World," it breaks down our emotional defenses through the sheer power and directness of its singer's command of the song. The kicking in of a hard beat, and the atonal surrealism of the chorus, mark improbable dots connected in Monáe's head that then extrapolate out in the universe, that make any intellectual separation of "styles" irrelevant.
The favored comparisons among the canon classic albums are Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which fits with the distancing concept and loose narrative; and Prince's Sign o' the Times, for its aural and musical sophistication and the sense that every wildly diverging thing it attempts goes totally airborne. But Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band seems to serve as an even more ideal precedent, given that its "concept" is equally flexible and that its shocking, relentlessly unpredictable eclecticism is meant less to exemplify extant corners of recorded music than to reveal something through them; and more than anything, the albums are kindred in regard to their sense of joy and humor, as well as a surprising undercurrent of melancholy and loss.
Pepper only had a story insofar as it supposedly consisted of a concert being played by a fictitous band, which meant it really could get away with just being a collection of delectable pop songs. The "plot" of ArchAndroid has a lot more credibility, lifting its essence and (according to Monáe) its moral from Fritz Lang's sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, a film of almost purely aesthetic pleasures that nevertheless spoke to Monáe at a deeper level as the basis for an allegory about life as a shunned minority. The pleasures and horrors of being an outcast run through all of her work, an appreciation and lament that the alienation she dramatizes sets her apart as a beautiful eccentric not easily understood by authority or (often) peers. As stunning as it is, the bare-bones simplicity of the story of Metropolis (a consequence, perhaps, of its being cowritten by a future Nazi, Thea von Harbou) lends itself more convincingly to pop music than to the screen, where eye-popping special effects have a literalizing effect that never harms ArchAndroid's ability to speak through metaphor, or to allow the listener in the tank for sheer musical thrills to ignore the premise altogether. All the same: Monáe's alter ego here is Cindi, a time traveling android attempting to put a stop to the oppression of the lower classes of workers populating the underground in the film. The album toys with chase scenes and cinematic pacing but the storytelling aspects, as on most concept records, are mostly useful in the "form follows function" sense -- excitement accumulates because of the musical adventure instead of the literary one, but if the beating heart of the android tale is what liberated Monáe and her coproducers to experiment in so many varying guises, it did its job perfectly.
Once the orchestral overture slips abruptly into the slinky bass of "Dance or Die," Monáe's absolute confidence is in evidence immediately; that song's slick funk segues right into the Dusty Springfield-Ruth Brown adventure "Faster," whose left-field, itchy interludes about "just another little weirdo" give you plenty of indication of why Prince idolized Monáe in his final years, if you even needed them. There's no pause for breath whatsoever before the first of the record's Stevie Wonder allusions, "Locked Inside," kicks in, along with the lower registers of Monáe's voice (in many ways this entire album is about that instrument) that the unschooled might have thought had already been fully explored by this point. It's here that her light-footed, full-body presence as a performer is most clearly audible, even without being able to watch her at work; those "crazy/baby" rhymes have all the agility of a Fred Astaire routine.
We did, however, get a chance to watch her during this album's promotional cycle; by many accounts her star-making moment was a legendary appearance on David Letterman's show in which she performed "Tightrope" in full '70s funk regalia, closing out with a humorous but strikingly appropriate nod to the James Brown showcase on The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964. That agility and enthusiasm were in full evidence here, along with the sense that Monáe saw herself completely as an artist who entertained, or an entertainer who makes art; commercial prospects were not the totality of her object, but it was unmistakable that what she meant to impart to the audience in the studio and watching television some kind of major, cathartic pleasure. This generosity was another element to her totality as a performer: she was openly "strange," a celebration of strangeness if anything, and meant to strike us with her refusal to cop to any then-traditional image of pop stardom, yet she was here operating in front of us as a crowd-pumping hybrid of Grace Jones, David Bowie and Peggy Lee, getting a thrill out of the universal fantasy imposing her individuality on the world, an indulgence -- can you call it that if it's so delightful? -- that she fully earned. Incidentally, "Tightrope" -- packaged with one of the last really memorable Big Boi verses and a very "Housequake"-like "shut up!" -- does take a short breath before it starts, in the form of the sad withering dream "Sir Greendown" and, more significantly, the stunning "Cold War," a harrowing but smooth and unstoppable song that lives in memory as a stark ballad but in fact presents its emotion in the rapid-fire batterram sense, accompanied eventually by a video in which Monáe is shown overcome, tears streaming down her face by the time the track ends... and this too is somehow an invitation into the deeper annals of her world rather than a "Nothing Compares 2 U"-like rebuke to the audience staring back at her.
It's easy to glance even briefly at Monáe's psychedelic fixations and musical restlessness and notice how radically she stands apart from the other mainstream R&B of her era (most R&B albums circa 2010 didn't contain backward tracks a la Sandinista!); but this is not an indictment of said R&B, because all it means is that Monáe is trying to do something else that doesn't really fit correctly with any genre specification, in the same way that Stevie Wonder wasn't doing the same thing as Mel & Tim or, for that matter, Al Green. It also doesn't escape worldly sociopolitical concerns; even setting aside the pointed class commentary in the ostensible plot, Monáe's future work would underline the effect being a "weird" kid and a queer black girl in America had on the sensibility already in evidence on her earliest work. Her commitment to these "suites" is obviously a callback to her past as a theater kid, and also to a long-gone era of sometimes comically ambitious rock music; but that commitment is also remarkable in its purity, and in the musical inspiration it provides. The Henry Mancini bass and spy-movie backdrop on "Come Alive" sounds like something from the Ultra Lounge years but also couldn't possibly emanate from any moment before it came into existence; it's too skewed by Monáe's own craft and intution, using art of the past not as a shorthand ticket to a response but as a means of communication, like the peculiarly arid synthpop on Leonard Cohen's later albums, though obviously much more cleverly produced. The early Vince Clarke synthpop sound of "Wondaland" and its childlike chorus, the druggy "Crimson and Clover"-like "Mushrooms & Roses," the space-church anthem "57821" (very much of a piece with "Oh Maker" in its appropriation of defiantly uncool musical forms to craft something that sounds actively new), even the tie-dyed interlude from Elephant 6 hippie funk outfit Of Montreal "Make the Bus": these all feel like facets of Monáe's own personality being brought into the light for the first time; all stick out like weird kids, all are glorious and strange like weird kids' dreams, and all seem like public admissions of something that could get you ostracized from your family or peers in the wrong time and place.
By the time Monáe completely surrenders to the vibe on "Say You'll Go" and then takes us on the absolutely monumental final eight-minute journey "BaBopByeYa," a Wonder excursion circa Fulfillingness as rearranged by Bernard Herrmann and sung by Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald with a Sketches of Spain grand finale, it's hard to know how to compress all of your impressions down into a simple line of thought, even if you've heard the album many times. Initially, in 2010 I remember feeling overwhelmed at how impressed I was, and really found it hard to even pick and choose parts of the record to single out -- its effect seemed reliant on context because of the many twists and shocks even if nearly all of the individual bits and pieces were brilliant and unconventional. Even the closest thing on offer to a relatively simple neo-soul romance here, "Neon Valley Street," toys too much with beats and distortions to be reduced to any easy description. But I'd like to offer a couple of strange moments spread around that have come to really speak to me personally, and what I love about them both is the way that, on this album that musically and vocally is such a celebration of nonconformity and absolute confidence, they allow for a bit of a crack in Monáe's exterior, and also demonstrate that she may be as overwhelmed by the music and its surfeit of ideas and enthusiasms as we are.
First, in the space hookah bar chronicle "Mushrooms & Roses," is a sequence in which Monáe's narrator (maybe Cindi, maybe not) is trying to recall the name of a person she used to know in this mythical club. It's part of the narrative, and probably well rehearsed, but it exists apart from the music and sounds genuinely hazy and improvised, as though she were being recorded for Creature Comforts, yet there's some kind of eerie power to her spoken, clipped remembrance, which has the dreamlike tentativeness of Big Star's "Kanga Roo": "I remember one of the regulars, her long, grey hair, beautiful smile and rosy cheeks. Her name slips my mind... Ahhh, her name was... it was..." and then the song kicks back in to announce the name was "Blueberry Mary, and she's crazy about me," but as surreal as the sung portion is, your mind temporarily wanders back to the distorted spoken words a moment ago, which seem like they couldn't be from the same person.
The second moment I cherish -- and I can't fully explain why -- comes in "BaBopByeYa." Really, I cherish every second of that masterpiece of past colliding with future, but as the record comes to an unsettling close, there is Janelle Monáe, her voice suddenly as clear as a bell, reciting a poem of sorts with the charisma and nerves of a really talented high schooler at assembly, and the verse she reads takes a remarkable turn from irresistible love and loss -- in the narrative, the ravages of duty and rebellion -- to what sounds like the record's entire thesis: that all of this storytelling is really the way out, the way Monáe can make triumph and justice for herself and her people, and the only way any of us can find genuine redemption and understand ourselves, futuristic robots or not -- an introvert's protest:
I hear echoes of your laughter in the corners of my mind
While I memorize each detail of your intricate design
In your hair there is a symphony
Your lips, a string quartet
They tell stories of a Neon Valley Street
Where we first met
Now somewhere time pursues us
As we love in Technicolor
But I dwell in silence on your words
Which move me like none other
This time I shall be unafraid
And violence will not move me
This time we will relax
This time we will stay in our movie.