Janelle Monae - Metropolis: The Chase Suite

Janelle Monae
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A wellspring of inspiration runs deep inside the ingenious psyche of Janelle Monáe. Eighty years after Fritz Lang filmed Metropolis (1927), the young woman from Kansas with the pompadour and saddle shoes is keeping Lang's legacy alive in her own highly-stylized fashion. Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition), Monáe's answer to the classic silent film, is something of a masterpiece, a cloudburst of creativity that provokes introspection as much as funk-rock revelry. There is nothing quite like it.

A wellspring of inspiration runs deep inside the ingenious psyche of Janelle Monáe. Eighty years after Fritz Lang filmed Metropolis (1927), the young woman from Kansas with the pompadour and saddle shoes is keeping Lang's legacy alive in her own highly-stylized fashion. Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition), Monáe's answer to the classic silent film, is something of a masterpiece, a cloudburst of creativity that provokes introspection as much as funk-rock revelry. There is nothing quite like it.

Those with their eyes and ears attuned to the underground may already be familiar with Metropolis. With the assistance of Big Boi, Monáe released the project as the first of a four-part suite in August 2007 on her own Wondaland Arts Society record label. No less an impresario than Sean "P. Diddy" Combs caught wind of Metropolis: Suite I of IV: The Chase and sought to sign Monáe to his Bad Boy imprint. A year later, the partnership has effectuated a special edition re-release with two new tracks appended to the project: "Smile," a studio rendition of the hair-raising highlight of Monáe's live performances, and "Mr. President," an open-letter to our nation's Commander-in-Chief set to a rhythm reminiscent of early-‘70s Al Green. (Note to collectors: the Bad Boy edition, though expanded with these tracks, features microscopic text and fewer illustrations and photographs than Wondaland's original release. The Special Edition of The Chase Suite is also available on red vinyl!)

Though the packaging is somewhat different, the central story remains intact. The protagonist of Metropolis suite is an android named Cindi Mayweather. Under the evil dominion of The Wolfmasters, androids are prohibited to know and feel love. Breaking the rule of Metropolis, Cindi Mayweather falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. An edict is issued for her capture and disassembly ("The March of The Wolfmasters"). Running frantically through the streets of Metropolis, Mayweather follows a trail of "violet stars" to escape the "‘droid control" as they hunt her down with chainsaws and electro-daggers.

"Violet Stars/Happy Hunting," which documents the chase aspect of The Chase, is what prompted AllMusic.com to declare Monáe the Nona Hendryx of the 21st century. Monáe fires up the song with a feisty attitude, as she relays Mayweather's escape over incessant drums and scratchy guitars. Rockabilly by way of science fiction, "Violet Stars" innervates the body to move with an infectious beat.

In a far different stylistic vein, "Cybertronic Purgatory" is a resplendent example of Monáe's vocally technical superiority. Though the song is little more than an interlude with its 1:39 duration, it reveals Monáe's startlingly beautiful upper-register. A few vocal effects emphasize the android soul of Mayweather but do not detract from Monáe's performance. "Soar in my dreams," she sings, like a flower releasing the most redolent fragrance imaginable. Monáe's operatic intonation gives the otherwise frenetic pace of The Chase Suite its heart-stopping moment.

The effect of "Cybertronic Purgatory" is even more powerful in contrast to the gritty realism of "Sincerely, Jane" that follows. Through the lens of Cindi Mayweather's story, Janelle Monáe draws parallels to the very real-world issues of freedom and oppression in the United States. "Sincerely, Jane" is a rhythmic sermon on ails afflicting contemporary U.S. culture. HIV/AIDS, drug dealing, and material avarice are just a very few of the issues Monáe tackles in the song. "The way we live/The way we die/What a tragedy/I'm so terrified," she exclaims mournfully. While the funky theatricality of the music is reason enough to listen, Monáe's incisive lyrics command complete attention.

The creative team involved with Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition) must be commended for delivering what is the most conceptually innovative music release of the year. With the cybersoul heart of Cindi Mayweather as her muse, Janelle Monáe has arrived.

By Christian John Wikane

 
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