Monday, September 23, 2013

Album review: The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae

This is an unusual one. First, Monae has been working on a seven-part work that is inspired by Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’. Back in 2007 she put out an EP that was part one, then the album ‘The ArchAndroid’, in 2010, was parts two and three. Three years later we now have ‘The Electric Lady’.

I remember listening to ‘The ArchAndroid and really wanting to like it, but writing it off as having potential, and Monae as an artist to look into. Two pre-released pop singles from ‘Lady’ made me invest in the album: “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu and “Dance Apocalyptic”.

Notably I like these songs in part because I’ve seen ‘Metropolis’. As such the first half of the album makes a lot of sense. I know the scenes she’s thinking of. The conceptual side of the album is definitely stronger for the first half.

The back half is different. It feels more like an extended love letter to soul and R&B. I’m not sure what ties it to ‘Metropolis’. However, the first vocal track on the album has Prince on it, and the album cover is designed to invoke the classic soul era. Perhaps, then, there is supposed to be a more fluid mix of these two themes.

As examples of the love-letter theme from the back half, presumably the track ‘Ghetto Woman’ is an homage to Stevie Wonder, and ‘Dorothy Dandridge Eyes’ must be acknowledging Michael Jackson. Yet, also on the back half, there’s a fascinating track ‘Sally Ride’ which returns to futurism, and stylistically returns to rock. Whether or not the album is pop, rock or R&B I don’t know. There’s a bit of freestyling on there as well. The track ‘We Were Rock n’ Roll’ brings out the theme of Monae’s basic artistic displacement:

“We were unbreakable
  We were like Rock n’ Roll
  We were like a king and queen
  I want you to know…”

Interestingly the title of the track is not ‘We Were Like Rock n’ Roll’. Indeed, the whole idea of a young black woman’s main artistic inspiration being ‘Metropolis’ is a little striking, but more impressive, and a more worthwhile focus, would be Monae’s versatility. The track that best demonstrates this is ‘Look Into My Eyes’, the closing track on the first half. She puts away the electronics, pumps the strings up even further, and sings. The fact that a seeming lounge track straight from Italy in the 60s doesn’t feel out of the place is the strength of the first half. The back half, while it has good tracks, is more of a mixed bag, and the conceptual threads are scattered. Throughout the album are interlude skits, in the oh-so-typical radio show style, with some hits, others misses.

Overall, then, I’d say the album is a solid 'B'. Better than average, certainly, and a good artistic achievement. I look forward to seeing the final two parts of her vision.

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