Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010)

Janelle Monae
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Janelle Monáe isn't riding the conventional lanes of pop music and she knows it. The first single jumping out of her official national debut, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), is "Tightrope," a slice of Godfather soul and a sprinkle of Outkast spice. It's a cut above the Amy Winehouse retro soul stuff, but if you're expecting the entire album to slide into the classic R&B playbook be prepared for a shock.

Janelle Monáe isn't riding the conventional lanes of pop music and she knows it. The first single jumping out of her official national debut, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), is "Tightrope," a slice of Godfather soul and a sprinkle of Outkast spice. It's a cut above the Amy Winehouse retro soul stuff, but if you're expecting the entire album to slide into the classic R&B playbook be prepared for a shock.

The ArchAndroid, the follow-up to her Atlantic EP and debut, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, picks up Monáe's altered galaxy of mythical proportions. In the liner notes, she uses hyperbolic fantasy juices from the P-Funk to tell a futuristic tale of time-travel that somehow embeds itself in the lyrics and music. A brilliant and interesting story explaining the lead character, the messianic android heroine Cindi Mayweather, attempting to save the troubled minorities of Metropolis from an oppressive regime of evildoers surrounds the development of the project, adding extra interest to its creation. When understood in its totality, with the help of some sci-fi knowledge, the album becomes much more than just a musical odyssey. It becomes an event - a concept album that carries its own mythology.

Musically, the album is a crash course of past and present musical forms. The opening two-minute sequence, using some futuristic features, stirs in an orchestral prelude set to classical waltzes and serenading strings. But, each track, uniquely yet irritably attached to one another like a non-ending mixtape, gets a creative makeover using advanced studio tricks and robotic experiments that highlight Monáe's idiosyncratic choice of musical style.

The big, radio-ready soul jam, "Tighrope," withstanding, nothing is more accessible to playful pop than the Tom Tom Club-inspired "Wondaland." Its breezy, trance-like layers of candy land, topped with another layer of character creativeness using innocent, childlike vocals, is proof that having fun doesn't always have to be earmarked with naughty. Most of the easily digestible tracks document the first half of the album: The first song "Dance or Die," with Monáe's supersonic rapping and some funky hip-hop punch, feels like a futuristic 28th century revisit of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. Keeping with the pace of "Dance or Die" comes "Faster;" bearing a faster tempo and a bit more jazz. Her singing chops-buoyed by romantic, graceful undertones-come out of the robotic world on the melodic "Locked Inside." "Come Alive" is probably the most inescapable cut assembled on The ArchAndroid. At first glance, the jam bears the spunk and melody of B-52's "Rock Lobster," but it rocks more like Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," with lyrics prove the comparison: "That's when I come alive/ like a schizo running wild/That's when I come alive/Now let's go wild."

Not that the other tracks don't have their own accessibilities -- they do for those with an ear for them. Depending on your music cravings, you could easily get into the psychedelic soul rock of "Mushrooms & Roses," the effortless merge of folk and soul on "Oh, Maker" and the dreamy ballads of "Say You'll Go" and "57821." Yet, when considering today's pop and paranoiac and predictable R&B markets, Janelle Monáe's eclectic universe will most likely be interpreted as a hybrid mutation of genres and the artist, a misunderstood eclectic misfit who uses more strokes of the brush than Franz Marc. Even her new association with Bad Boy mogul Sean "P Diddy" Combs seems a bit odd when placed against Monáe's musical mosaic.

Nonetheless, it is such a welcome relief to hear and see someone breaking out of the comforts of today's genre-defining conventions. Underneath the surfaces of The ArchAndroid is an album blooming with the same ingredients of Prince's Purple Rain and the creative imagination of Michael Jackson. It's almost light-years ahead from Lady Gaga's Euro synth-pop. It is dangerously unfortunate that an album this heavy with ambition and ingenuity will take years before it is probably seriously accepted in the mainstream. Highly recommended.

By J. Matthew Cobb

 

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