The Ladyist has been dealing with some heavy stuff lately, so here’s a brighter subject.
This, for the uninitiated, is Janelle Monáe. Sci-fi visionary. Dance icon. Robot angel. Q.U.E.E.N. Make-up model. Hair magician. R&B superhero. Stop me when this gets too much; she’s too much for words. Instead of words, watch this:
Then watch this:
And lastly, this:
The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I posted the same video three times. This is no mistake; this is to make sure you take in the magic and majesty that is Janelle Monáe. That one-footed slide she does is worth watching again on its own (don’t worry, it’ll be back).
That Letterman appearance was my introduction to this dynamo, and what an introduction it was. Packing the pizazz of James Brown into a tiny, dapper frame, she moves with the kind of fluidity that feels as game-changing as early Michael Jackson performances and writes songs that make Prince sit up and pay attention (he guested on her second album). All of that in one song? Incredible. And that’s before we even begin to talk about her voice.
But then you get to The ArchAndroid, and you realise ALL THAT was only a teeny tiny fragment of the beginning of an idea of what Janelle can do.
The Fritz Lang reference of the cover is the first hint that this isn’t your ordinary pop album.
The ArchAndroid is an epic, a stage musical in audio form. No sound is off limits to Janelle’s voracious creativity: she moves as lightly through dreamy classical-inspired suites (‘Suite II Overture) as she does through pop (‘Faster’), through torch ballads (‘Cold War’, ‘Neon Valley Heart’) and robo-funk (‘Wondaland’). Each song moves into the next so smoothly that the transition between the nightmare funk of ‘Come Alive (The War of the Roses)’ and the hip-hop-inflected Julie Andrews numbers (‘Mushrooms & Roses’) seems natural and obvious.
Her second album, The Electric Lady, is less keen on the genre-hopping, but there are still flourishes of Bond themes, Herb Alpert, the score to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and brilliantly on-point android-radio interludes to spice up her super-tight funk/soul/groove explosion. That concision makes Electric Lady as less showy album, and it’s maybe not as game-changing as The ArchAndroid, but it’s an incredible record in its own right, and features an astounding array of guests like Erykah Badu, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel and, yeah, Prince.
Then there are her video clips…
Her clips are as perfectly considered and beautifully executed as her albums, which is no small feat. Janelle herself is a powerhouse, unafraid to show off her ability to sing, dance, rap and act, and she does so while being better dressed than I’ll be on the finest day of my life. They’re art projects, particularly ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, which continues Janelle’s fascination with black and white contrast.
Even the label-mandated, Samsung-branded clip for ‘Electric Lady’ is more fun than it has any right to be.
Cold War, though, speaks to the human part of Janelle’s work, the heart that keeps this from all being an exercise in showing off.
That intimacy, that directness takes a different kind of strength than the flashy performer, or the would-be artist. It’s a whole other side to a woman who was already as multi-faceted as a gemstone. An artist. A designer. A model. A dancer. A composer. Oh, and a writer.
As she began on her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Janelle frames The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady with the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who just might be a kind of robot messiah. In the way of all good sci-fi (and genre) writers, Janelle uses Cindi and the android working class as a way of getting at race relations, gender relations, sexuality, privilege and a whole host of other ideas. Is that enough for her? Is it what. She’s spoken in the past about turning The ArchAndroid into a graphic novel, and a Broadway production. I for one would be there at the launch of either, given the chance.
I’ll leave you with a great piece by Charles Pulliam-Moore at NPR’s Code Switch blog. He mentioned Janelle in a piece on Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, Wakanda, and Afrofuturism, and I think you should go read it in full. Here’s a snippet for you anyway, quoting comic book historian Adilifu Nama:
“Afrofuturism creates a space in which blackness is equated with futurism, cybernetics and super-science,” he explained. “All of these ideas undermine the trope of the urban, or the subservient, or the criminal.”
Not just any pop album. No ma’am.