Review: Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady
Janelle Monáe’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid was many people’s album of the year, including mine. It was a big seller, and also a remarkable musical achievement in that it seemed to defy categorisation. It appealed to both fans of contemporary R&B and prog-rockers, who aren’t so much warring factions as two alien species unaware of each other’s existence. So, to say that this follow-up album was “much anticipated” is an understatement.
If you only know of Monáe from her kinetic singles, e.g. “Tightrope” and “Cold War”, you might be surprised by how ambitious her longer release are. Her first EP and her two albums are suites (acts) in an overarching story. The narrative centres on an android called Cindi Mayweather, who becomes a sort of robot messiah. Telling a story over multiple releases is an interesting concept, but I challenge anybody to follow the story without resorting to reading the lyrics. I’ve never really been able to follow the plot, but it seems even more difficult to grasp this time around.
It’s not only the lyrics that are disappointing; the musical side is also lacking. The ArchAndroid was wilfully eclectic, with influences from grand opera to Simon & Garfunkel. However, with this record she seems only to be embracing contemporary R&B and Hip Hop. Even the album’s guest stars don’t seem to spice things up. The Artist Once Again Known as Prince appears, and whilst voice is unmistakable, his contribution is unremarkable. Erykah Badu, who was clearly a huge influence on Monáe, merely provides a fairly prosaic rap. Solange and the wonderfully-named jazz singer Esperanza Spalding are almost undetectable.
The majority of the guest stars appear in the first half, and I was rather hoping that unconstrained by these (possibly record company mandated) guests, she would be free to do what she really wanted. For a while, this seems like the case, with the wonderfully bonkers “Dance Apocalyptic”, followed by the Bond theme-like “Look Into My Eyes”. However, things soon slump back into merely above average R&B and Stevie Wonder-y soul, before coming to an inauspicious close with the ironically-titled “What an Experience”.
It’s by no means a terrible album, merely disappointing compared to what came before it. ArchAndroid was the album of the year, but this will only be the R&B/Hip Hop album of 2013. Looking at the huge numbers of people involved in the recording, you can’t help but feel like there was a lot of wasted effort.
Whatever the album’s faults, Janelle Monáe should be applauded, not only for her ambition, but also the subject matter of her music. Too often pop and R&B artists write music that is far too self-referential and self-aggrandising. The fact that she is creating a sci-fi mythology, complete with multiple characters and (something of a) plot, shows that Monáe is a cut above her peers.
Judging by the code on the front cover of the album, there are two more suites to go before the story of Cindi Mayweather is over. That’s more than a little disappointing. She should have brought things to a close with this release, so she would be free to move on to creative pastures new.