Janelle Monae - Electric Lady

Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae Electric Lady.jpg
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Science fiction and fantasy have long been a method writers employ to address the real world issues in far away worlds or in past, future or dystopian present. Moving the story out of our present time and place gives artists license to turn a mirror to the warts and controversial issues that readers, listeners or viewers may not be able to confront in a story set in our time.

Take something like the novel and movie Logan’s Run (yeah, I went all 1970s on y’all). Set in a distant future, Logan’s Run tells the story of an earth where humanity lives under a dome and nobody lives beyond the age of 30. The work obviously takes an unvarnished look at religion, but Logan’s Run also addresses overpopulation, the disrespect that western culture has for the old and the ease at which the young can be distracted by materialism and the temptations of the modern world.

Science fiction and fantasy have long been a method writers employ to address the real world issues in far away worlds or in past, future or dystopian present. Moving the story out of our present time and place gives artists license to turn a mirror to the warts and controversial issues that readers, listeners or viewers may not be able to confront in a story set in our time.

Take something like the novel and movie Logan’s Run (yeah, I went all 1970s on y’all). Set in a distant future, Logan’s Run tells the story of an earth where humanity lives under a dome and nobody lives beyond the age of 30. The work obviously takes an unvarnished look at religion, but Logan’s Run also addresses overpopulation, the disrespect that western culture has for the old and the ease at which the young can be distracted by materialism and the temptations of the modern world.

Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady serves as her commentary the issue of our time – giving people the freedom to embrace their identity however it is defined and love whoever they want to love. Monae does this through her alter ego, the android Cindy Mayweather. Androids reside in that grey area between robot and human, and thereby represent something of a threat to traditional humanity – think the X-Men. Monae’s Mayweather – a fugitive pursued by anti android bounty hunters – embodies freedom, tolerance and creativity.

In the context of contemporary culture and politics, Electric Lady is Monae’s polemic on the issue of marriage equity and LGBT rights. It’s clear through the skits interspersed throughout the 19-track album, as well as through tunes such as “Q.U.E.E.N (feat. Erykah Badu) and “Sally Ride” that Monae supports these issues.

Of course, making such strong statements in favor of marriage equity prompted some to wonder if Monae was expressing a preference as well as an opinion. For her part Monae expressed surprise that people think her support for issues such marriage equity means that she is a lesbian. Her response to the questions is a devious mash up Seinfeld and cliché that turns the question back on the questioner in what we draw from Monae’s response says as much about us as it does about her.

I’m not sure how long Monae will be able to stick to those talking points, but she is content to let the guessers guess, the speculators speculate and the judgers judge by asking people to evaluate her music.

Monae can take refuge in her art because she has something to say on Electric Lady, and she says it very, very well. Electric Lady is a showcase for Monae’s fertile mind and a vocal instrument that can function on several musical platforms.

Monae adds a little gravel to her voice on the funky rocker “Givin’ Em What They Love (Feat. Prince.)” Oh, and does anybody do a better job of choosing collaborators than Monae? Prince is the perfect collaborator for this ode to the 1980s Minneapolis sound.  Meanwhile, Badu is the perfect partner for the mixture of sass, humor and subversive feel that permeates the sparse “Q.U.E.E.N.” “Q.U.E.E.N” sports a bouncy and funky bass line and percussion arranged like a march.

Electric Lady features ballads where Monae shows that she can handle a sub genre of R&B singing that has suffered in recent years. “Primetime” is a seductively dreamy duet with R&B superstar Miguel that must have some of those guessers, speculators and judges scratching their collective heads. Beyond throwing folks a preference curveball, “Primetime” has other virtues:  First, it’s a wonderfully arranged song with a mixture of rock influenced guitars, 80s era synth work and dreamy harmonized background vocals. Further, the lyrics manage to be erotic and visual while not going over the top.

Monae proves that she is no less creative and adventurous when she is alone at the mike. “Ghetto Woman” finds Monae performing in a style that might remind some of musical hero Stevie Wonder on a track that honors a personal hero – her mother - as well as all of the women who toil without acclaim. The 60s styled “Look Into My Eyes” feels like Monae is making her pitch to sing the theme song of the next James Bond movie.

Janelle Monae’s wish to keep the focus away from her personal life is likely doomed to fail. She’s a bona fide star who combines talent, wit, looks and grace in a way reminiscent of the sheen that Berry Gordy worked to apply to his Motown acts. That amalgamation of gifts will bring attention, especially since Monae appears to be honing her craft further with each release. The music will be a major conversation piece, and if the speculators, guessers and judges can stop parsing the lyrics they will find the experience of listening quite enjoyable. Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes 

 
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