Janelle Monae, ‘The Electric Lady’ – Album Review
The most striking thing about Janelle Monae’s newest double album, ‘The Electric Lady,’ is how similar it feels to its predecessor, 2010’s masterful ‘The ArchAndroid.’ That’s not to say the Kansas City-born singer is repeating herself, only that the consistency of vision on display is worth pause. There are shifts and tweaks to the album’s approach, and new musical ideas continue to flow from Janelle and her Wondaland collaborators, but as is befitting a sequel, ‘The Electric Lady’ picks up exactly where ‘The ArchAndroid’ left off.
Monae’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather has been on the run since 2007, when the singer released her Bad Boy debut, ‘Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase),’ an EP named for German auteur Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking silent sci-fi film. The EP looks downright quaint compared to the sprawling ambition and aesthetic cohesion that Monae showed with ‘The ArchAndroid,’ a double album comprised of the following two suites in Cindi Mayweather’s story. The album depicted a Terry Gilliam-esque, allegory-heavy future, exploring themes of otherness, classicism and love-conquers-all togetherness. And it painted a richly developed world worthy of Monae’s literary sci-fi influences.
‘The Electric Lady’ continues ‘The ArchAndroid’’s story, as well as the previous record’s pan-20th-century musical approach, grabbing from classic soul and funk just as readily as psychedelia, punk, dance music, hip-hop and big band. (Rreggae even makes an appearance on closer ‘What An Experience.’) It's all backed by idyllic Disneyland strings and filtered through hyperactive 21st century production. If there’s one drawback to ‘The Electric Lady,’ it’s that it doesn’t share ‘The ArchAndroid’’s thematic and world-building ambition. Instead, Monae settles for a looser, more lighthearted tone. Luckily, the songcraft remains.
'Suite IV' opens with a spy movie-style overture before jumping into the gritty slink-funk of ‘Givin’ Em What They Love,’ featuring Prince. More physical and sexual than anything that’s appeared on previous records, it’s a telling opener. ‘Q.U.E.E.N.,’ which features a rapid-fire verse from the like-minded Erykah Badu, is an '80s-electro-funk-tinged anthem about sexual identity, complete with lines like “the booty don’t lie” and references to twerking. It’s admittedly cheesy stuff in Monae’s hands, especially with the accompanying sleazy synth hook, but it fits the record’s playful focus on empowerment (sexual or otherwise), solidarity and inclusivity.
There is no ‘Cold War’-’Tightrope’ one-two knockout on ‘The Electric Lady,’ but the more pop-centric 'Suite IV' does have its standouts. ‘Primetime’ is a subdued, slowly melting love song with Monea and R&B singer Miguel passing quiet versus back and forth before blowing the song up with the record’s biggest chorus. The track ends with a burning, transcendent guitar solo. ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ seemingly comes out of nowhere -- a dance-heavy take on bubblegum pop with lines like “smoking in the girls room” and a goofy refrain of “smash smash, bang bang, don’t stop, cha-lang-a-lang-a-lang.”
‘The Electric Lady’ is framed with a radio show hosted by the fictional DJ Crash Crash, who appears in brief skits throughout the record, spouting futuristic Parliament-Funkadelic-isms and chatting with callers about Cindi Mayweather’s whereabouts and whether androids should have rights. It cements the looser, sillier tone of 'The Electric Lady,' but it ultimately wears out its welcome by the fourth or fifth listen. Still, 'The Electric Lady' is impeccably sequenced, with an orchestra of strings swimming to the surface at the end of each track, as if we’re watching a play or musical in a great golden hall.
Much like the second suite of 'The ArchAndroid,' 'The Electric Lady'’s latter half is lusher and more subdued, not to mention supremely lovelorn. ‘It’s Code,’ ‘Victory’ and ‘I Can’t Live Without Your Love’ deal in richly ornate soul, heavy with strings, synths and backing harmonies. ‘Sally Ride’ is an expansive landscape of cosmic gospel and political righteousness and may well be the album’s most incendiary and sincere track. But even the more upbeat, Latin-fusion-heavy ‘Ghetto Woman’ has a loftier, airier feeling than anything from 'Suite IV.'
‘The Electric Lady’ finds Janelle Monae absolutely at the top of her game and, if there was any question, the record reaffirms the young singer’s status as a modern pop visionary. Her newest might not be as thematically rich as its predecessor, but musically, it’s just as sharp. Monae has created a realm of her own, separate from almost every aspect of contemporary pop music, and ‘The Electric Lady’ marks her as queen.