Janelle Monáe is hands down one of the most exciting and creative artists currently putting out music, and this latest album is a worthy addition to her repertoire. Slightly more focused on R&B than her last album, "Electric Lady" constitutes the fourth and fifth suites (of a proposed seven) of Monáe's epic saga of the world of Metropolis--the futuristic dystopian world of androids as seen through the eyes of rebel android (and Monáe alter ego) Cindi Mayweather. "Electric Lady" balances a thoughtful and probing social conscience with an uncontrollable toe tapping/body throbbing good time.
The sci-fi fantastical world of Metropolis full of androids and zombies is just beyond our reality, which allows Monáe the freedom to tackle heavy topics like gender, race, religion and sexuality in a different context without things getting too ponderous and exhaustive. While clearly relevant and important, Monáe grounds these discussions with a playfulness which has her pairing questions like "Say will your God accept me in my black and white" in the same song as "...You gotta testify because the booty don't lie" (from "Q.U.E.E.N."). Aside from her infectious energy and fantastic vocals-much of Monáe's brilliance comes from her ability to raise and discuss these issues without it seeming forced, pretentious or angry. She's a feminist, civil rights activist, opinionated and yet still approachable, danceable and fun. Which means her message actually gets through instead of your brain just shutting it all out.
Musically, this album is a bit less eclectic than "ArchAndroid", but still manages to run the gauntlet of funk, r&b, classical, psychedelic punk and jazz. It also sees the appearance of several respected artists like mentor Prince on the funk "Givin' Em What They Love". Erykah Badu is a righteous soul sister on "Q.U.E.E.N." laying down a bridge that gives into Monae showing off some admirable rap skills. These features aren't always successful though as illustrated by the rather tepid duet with Miguel on "Primetime" which may or may not have been a half hearted attempt at a radio hit. My personal favorites are probably mostly in the first suite as it seems to have a bit more edge, yet it seems Monáe's vocal prowess is showed off a bit more in the second suite like on "Sally Ride."
Now as wonderful as this world of Metropolis is, and as skilled as Monáe is at using and manipulating this world--the explanations are still at times a little heavy handed and clunky. Her insistence on putting on this robotic persona at all times does wear out its welcome a little bit. And while at times incredibly thrilling and thought provoking, Monáe's many nods and "inspired bys" to a whole host of different things is also a reference too far sometimes. Far be it for me to tell an artist that they need less layered music--but sometimes you just wish you could see more of Monáe and her essence in her music.
That said, Monáe is an artist artist--willing and able to make art for herself before even thinking of an audience and I tremendously respect her fearsome commitment to her craft and her concept. In the meantime, I get to enjoy an album that somehow makes my body break out in violent spasms while driving--which I imagine on a more coordinated person would look at lot more like dancing. And as a cherry on top, I don't have to check my mind at the door either. Janelle Monáe is a musical maelstrom who is a shining beacon of individuality and class, not to mention an incredible vocalist--and it's a privilege experience her Metropolis. If we could all be as fearless and passionate as Cindi.
For fans of Erykah Badu, Outkast, Lauryn Hill, Kimbra etc....
***Monáe is on tour right now and I cannot highly suggest going to a concert enough. I saw her a few years ago and was blown away. If you think she's high octane and energetic in her music videos-prepare for world domination during a live show.