Janelle Monáe’s android-inspired saga continues with The Electric Lady
Thematically less ambitious than its predecessors, but equally inspiring
The Electric Lady
Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records
Released September 10, 2013
“Also, I wanna say The Droid Control can kiss the rust of the left and the right cheek of my black metal ass,” says the voice of a female caller during a radio call in Monáe’s interlude “Good Morning Midnight.” The radio station WDRD, led by DJ Crash Crash, receives comments and thoughts from various callers, who discuss their opinions on Monáe’s heroine alter-ego, android Cindi Mayweather.
Monáe’s longtime fans have been following the heartbreaking story of the fugitive android ever since she introduced Cindi’s character on her widely unknown debut album, The Audition. The actual narrative fully formed its flow on her conceptual EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). It told the story of android 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, who fell in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. Ostracized by the droid community, Cindi was labeled top android fugitive and prime target for The Droid Control’s bounty hunters. The tale continued throughout Monáe’s widely-acclaimed and highly eclectic full-length album The ArchAndroid, which ended with a climactic 8-minute orchestral piece “BaBopByeYa”. With the song’s final verses, “my freedom calls and I must go,” and Cindi’s narrative flashbacks of Anthony Greendown, the listeners were left wondering what the next chapter of the forbidden-love saga would entail.
Three years later, Monáe is back with a 19-track sequel entitled The Electric Lady. The new album takes a slight detour from the usual storyline and puts the spotlight on Monáe’s pre-android storyline and R&B-heavy melodies. Most of the android-inspired themes are told throughout the album’s three radio interludes, which do not reveal much about the latest details of Cindi’s destiny. Instead, they focus on the population’s support and rejection of her lifestyle. The diverse musical styles from The ArchAndroid, ranging from pop and rock to hip-hop and orchestral, exist only in subtle nuances on the new album. Suite IV and V Overtures still bring a reminiscent sound of The Electric Lady’s predecessor, but none of the songs reach the spectacular emotional quality of songs like “BabopbyeYa.” The lack of cohesive storyline, which became Monáe’s trademark, and the more homogenous musical style leave the album bereft of the final touch of Monáe-esque brilliance.
However, brilliance is a relative concept when it comes to Janelle Monáe. A less audacious album in her sphere of artistry is still an inspiring and defining album in the sphere of the wider music industry. The converged and R&B-centered musical style of The Electric Lady sounds indisputably refreshing and novel when Prince joins Monáe in “Givin ‘Em What They Love,” one of the album’s stand-out old-school tracks; or when Monáe and Miguel together tackle the album’s down-tempo and hypnotic love ballad “Primetime.” The album’s eponymous track, a collaboration between Monáe and Solange Knowles, brings out the old spirit of Janelle Monáe, in a song filled with dance beats, brass instruments and infectiously catchy lyrics. Big-name collaborations do not end there – Esperanza Spalding and Monáe thrive together in the jazzy lounge track “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” and Erykah Badu contributes her vocals in “Q.U.E.E.N.” While Monáe brings her traditional fusion of psychedelic nostalgia and funk elements in upbeat songs like “We Were Rock & Roll,” she also delivers a fantastic performance in more mellow, soul-inspired tracks like “Can’t Live Without Your Love” and “Look Into My Eyes.”
The development of the android-inspired saga remains unclear as Monáe wraps her lyrics with a layer of ambiguity and brings in more references to her personal life. However, when Monáe steps in “Ghetto Woman,” rapping “before the tuxedos and black and white every day / I used to watch my momma get down on her knees and pray,” or when she delivers the numbing rap sequence in the last part of “Q.U.E.E.N”, one must admit that Monáe is still as fantastic as ever, even if her efforts are no longer primarily focused on fictional and unusual themes.
Just before the radio conversation in “Good Morning Midnight” ends, the unknown female caller informs DJ Crash Crash that “[they] gonna take to the club tonight and break some rules in honor of Cin-di!” Thrilled and excited, DJ Crash Crash asks the female caller which rules they are going to break.
“We gonna break all of them”, replies the caller.
Monáe’s new album might be thematically less ambitious and musically less inclusive than her previous efforts, but less does not mean worse. The Electric Lady is different, equally inspirational and the best indicator of an undeniable truth – Monáe still knows how to break all the rules.
Highlight tracks: “Givin ‘Em What They Love” ft. Prince, “We Were Rock & Roll”, “What an Experience”, “Can’t Live Without Your Love”, “Electric Lady” ft. Solange, “Ghetto Woman.”