Janelle Monae is a loveable woman.
She’ll growl her way through “Givin Em What They Love” that shows she’s not afraid to take chances with her voice. She’ll drop one of the best verses of the year on “Q.U.E.E.N.” that shows she’s currently dominating the mostly-male-dominated genre of hip-hop in another life. She uses organic instruments in a genre that puts so much emphasis on the singer that they’ll often use drum machines and forget about the music. Through the concepts found within her lyrics (ie. “Q.U.E.E.N.” being a play on “Q.U.E.E.R.”), she’s concerned with the shittiness of current social issues that should have died with Hitler (the androids are an obvious metaphor for any out-group). Through her songs, she’s shown that she loves the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel as much as she loves OutKast, Prince and Michael Jackson – and that’s a rare and appreciated eclecticism that’s rarely heard in contemporary R&B circles. Oh, and she’s classier than the richest man in the world who owns every issue of GQ magazine could hope to be – a wonderful change from the typically oversexualized and underdressed female contemporaries.
Unfortunately, her new album – titled The Electric Lady – doesn’t even come close to being the album that I want it to be. Her debut album, The ArchAndroid, was itself a massively flawed enterprise, but I appreciated it because I admired her ambition. This album is just as long because a lot of thought is given to its concept (ie. the newly introduced fictional WDRD radio – see the droid-phobia expressed through radio callers on “Our Favorite Fugitive,” Q: “Radio love is queer,” A: “How you would know it’s queer if you ever tried it!”) and it’s another decidedly bi-partite affair; essentially two EPs put together to form a very long album. Unfortunately, whereas she experimented wildly on Suite III (a quick recap: the psychedelic journey of “Make the Bus,” the late night walk – complete with colors from a Debussy sample – of “Say You’ll Go”), Suite V is mostly a (solid) tribute to R&B. Which would be fine, except she doesn’t give us enough reasons to listen to her over the original source material (mostly Stevie Wonder, though “Sally Ride” is her answer to Elton John’s “Rocket Man”). Oh, and the concept of a robot from space/the future seeking love or whatever it’s supposed to be is just as half-baked as it was before.
Furthermore, The ArchAndroid had a lot more successes – after being fed up with that one’s length, I just pulled the tracks and formed a playlist for a much more sizable album. I tried to do the same here and barely came up with enough for an EP. There’s some truly mundane stuff this time around; for example, “Primetime” does absolutely nothing with its big name feature other than the standard duet, and while I appreciate the fact that the sample choice (Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind???”) is not at all obvious and only contributes some ambience to the proceedings and the blistering electric guitar solo, the drums that sound lifted straight out of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” (seriously, listen) are way too detracting. And a lot of these songs are their hooks. Sometimes, I’ll look past them because those hooks are delicious (ie. Solange’s backing vocals ensures that the chorus of the title track is as smooth-as-silk while there’s a remarkable climb on the hook of “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”), but other times, I struggle to remember anything that happened otherwise (ie. “What an Experience”).
To those successes, then. The bassline of “Givin Em What You Love” grabs you by the hips and thrusts you on the dancefloor from the album’s get-go, while the horn fanfare that punctuate her vocals were a great idea. Yes, Prince is on this – but Janelle Monae, moving her voice more than she ever did (that’s seriously saying something) – doesn’t ever let him come close to stealing the show with his massive sexuality; the way she bellows at the 2:37 that leads to the guitar solo is worth the price of admission alone. She goes in with a lyrical sledgehammer on single “Q.U.E.E.N.” (one of the top 10 contenders for best track this year), breaking down the stupider parts of society (“Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?” No. “And am I weird to dance alone late at night?” No. “Is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” No. “And is it rude to wear my shades?” Only if we were on a dinner date, Ms. Monae – and even then, I wouldn’t complain. “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?” Nah, regardless of what the backing vocals say). Unlike “Ghetto Woman” (one of the few highlights on the album’s second half), the rapped verse stands out thanks to one of the best bridges I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Erykah Badu. Elsewhere, “Dance Apocalyptic” is the album’s lone answer to all the fast-paced songs on The ArchAndroid (think: “Tightrope,” “Cold War,” “Come Alive”) where there’s no room for breathing, only dancing (the ending skit is great too – “What’s the matter? Your chicken tastes like pork? You have triplets instead of twins?”). But as I said, that’s just not enough rewards for such a long album.
Ah, well. This does have the best album cover of 2013, flipping male gaze around instead of what happened on the R-rated cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland.