Janelle Monáe is one of the few modern examples of the true meaning of the word “artist”. The Electric Lady is her second major album, and contains the 4th and 5th “suites” of her ongoing Metropolis saga. Like the 1930s movie of the same name, the story explores a future where there is a frightening divide between the rich and the poor. Like the movie Blade Runner, it also explores the idea of what a soul is in regards of humans vs. machines. In Janelle’s story, Janelle’s alter ego from the future, an android named Cindi Mayweather is a fugitive droid on the run because she broke a cardinal rule… she fell in love with a human. The punishment calls for immediate disassembly. But Cindi fled, and the android community has been helping her stay hidden from the “bounty hunters”. To them she is a beacon of hope. She is the one who will speak on their behalf and hopefully help them to rise up against their oppressors. The Archandroid, as referenced in her previous album.
This album doesn’t agressively push the narrative so much as it does take a step back and show you the detail of this world, set in 2719, and how people of this world interact and see each other in their situation. Mostly when the narrative *is* pushed, it is done by a series of interludes by a radio station called WDRD and DJ Crash Crash, as callers weigh in on their favorite fugitive. It finds Cindi stepping into an icon role as she gives the oppressed ones hope and a voice.
The deluxe Target edition splits the suites into two discs to accommodate the four bonus tracks. Suite IV kicks off in grandiose style with booming orchestra, as has become custom at the intro of each suite so far. The first real song is a masterful collaboration with her longtime idol Prince on “Give Em What They Love”. Unlike songs Prince has written for protegees, Janelle is the star here and is truly featuring Prince. It has a swaying rock feel to it, some softer guitar during Prince’s verse, and ends questionably with two female fans following Janelle backstage, playing on her unanswered questionable sexuality, or rather sex appeal – as she is an android. This gives way to my favorite funk song of the year “Q.U.E.E.N.”, another great collaboration, this time with Erykah Badu, whose subtle vocals are perfect for the track. The song captures so much that is right about Janelle… her funky basslines and beats, her witty writing, and even her ability to lay down some clever rhymes at the end with a real message. “Even when you edit me the booty don’t lie!”. The song rolls nonstop into the go-go drum funk of “Electric Lady”, this time collaborating with Solange (you know, the other more interesting Knowles sister). The song is a funk dance head-bobbing, neck rolling workout. After a DJ interlude we come to “Primetime”, a hot and passionate duet with Miguel. Although the CD liner notes credit Kellindo Parker with the guitar solo, I’m not buying it. That’s Prince. That’s sooooooo Prince! Put on any of his ballads with a guitar solo ending and it’s obvious. Especially with the strings sounding just like the way Prince would place them in a song like “The Arms of Orion”. Yet the solo doesn’t overshadow Janelle or Miguel. Definite highlight and one of my favorite love ballad duets. “We Were Rock & Roll” comes in next, with a salsa-boogie-funk thing happening, where Janelle either remembers Anthony Greendown (the man she’s in all the trouble over), or possibly another man she loves prior to Greendown. One more interlude, then another monster jam. This one is called “Dance Apocalyptic”. Idealistically it’s somewhere between Prince’s “1999” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya”. And it’s so perfect. The video (below) sums up the vibe of the song so perfectly. It’s a motown-styled soul-rocker to dance away your life to and forget about all the world’s problems. Perfect feel good music. Finally “Look Into My Eyes” takes us back to Cindi’s hypnotic personality and the way her android eyes, the window to her soul (the previous album notes state Cindi is equipped with ‘a working soul’), can captivate and disarm by melting your heart. Which is how she got in trouble in the first place.
Suite V is a flip side of Suite IV. Suite IV is big and bold and funky and dance-tastic. Suite V is more subdued. After a new overture (think of it like a stage play – the musical cues come from the first half of the album), we start with the tender love song “It’s Code”, a song about how love is pre-coded – the android way of saying it’s pre-determined destiny. The song segues into the next and speeds up a bit. Then the jazz kicks in with “Ghetto Woman”. The vibe of this song is late 70s/early 80s Stevie Wonder. It’s a touching ode to all of the under-appreciated hard working mothers out there that are struggling to stay alive and take care of their kids, much like Janelle’s own mother did. The next DJ interlude has a caller chastising Cindi witch-hunt style for not even being “a real person”, and then a caller who is hushed for trying to speak about Cindy being the Archandroid. Next is “Victory”, song of hope where she sings “to be victorious, you must find glory in the little things”. Following is “Can’t Live Without Your Love”, a classic mellow 70s style r&b track where Cindi longs for Anthony Greendown, who she has now been away from for too long. Cindi’s thoughts go back to realizing she has to choose between being a hero and being with the one she loves. “Sally Ride” ponders these with “I’m packing my space suit and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon”. Great guitar work at the end which I also think is probably uncredited Prince (look I know my Prince okay? If this isn’t Prince then kudos to her guitar player for learning how to sound like this). “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” then steps outside to show the way others see Cindi and her charming hypnotizing personality. Who wouldn’t want her as a lover? Who wouldn’t want her to stand for them? Again, a hard choice to make. The last track “What An Experience” has a groove much like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” but leaves this album with an ambiguous ending. Who is the song directed at? Someone new she met who has seen her in the way the previous song described? Anthony Greendown? Did she choose not to fight for the others in a moment of weakness and decide to leave it all to run away with him? Is she remembering encounters past? I guess we will have to wait until the final installment, Suites VI and VII to find out. Will Cindi Mayweather lead the rebel droid alliance against their oppressors? Will she get to be with Greendown in the end? We will have to wait and see.
Now the bonus tracks. The “Wondamix” of “Q.U.E.E.N.” strips the song down to its funky spine, puts the rapped verse first, and then gets to the first portion. It definitely works, as it highlights the orchestral parts and the lyrics more without drastically changing the song. The “Dungeon-Wondamix” of “Electric Lady” highlights the go-go drum aspect of the track more, starts with Janelle’s rapped verse, and then adds a rapped verse by Cee-Lo Green and Big Boi of Outkast. The verses are really good and this is a nice part two of sorts.
The next two bonus tracks are highlights of the album, period. “Hell You Talmabout” is Janelle painting a vivid picture of inner city life for those who may mock and think “Oh, it can’t be that bad!”. It has a vintage soul feel to the production with some guitar, some subtle horns, and some older analog keyboards. Great track. The final track is Janelle’s own reading of the Jackson 5 classic Motown hit “I Want You Back”, done as a gentle ballad. This one is such a winner, as she makes it truly her own.
This is by far one of the most interesting albums recorded this decade so far. Janelle Monáe has ideas and concepts so big they take several albums to unravel. She stretches out and shows her musical versatility in abundance here. She isn’t afraid to try specific challenging genres, and she’s not afraid to blend them either. She is a true fearless artist and she challenges the idea of what popular music can be. Thank you Ms. Monáe for taking us on your journey with you.
Check out some videos and performances from the album:
Teaser: “Q.U.E.E.N. Chaser”:
“Q.U.E.E.N.” (featuring Erykah Badu):
Teaser: “Cindi Mayweather – Ministry of the Droids”:
“Prime Time” (featuring Miguel):
“Electric Lady” (Live on Arsenio Hall 2013):