Few current artists are labeled “deserves to be bigger” or “underrated” with the frequency of R&B singer Janelle Monae. Monae’s first album The ArchAndroid was met with rave reviews upon release in 2010, but hasn’t sold well in the three years since; putting her in the unfortunate dichotomy of being critically adored, but ignored by the mainstream.
But, then again, it fits an artist who seems to be defined by dichotomies. Monae dresses exclusively in luxurious formal-ware as a tribute to her parents’ working-class uniforms (she only wears black and white, to boot). Her music is steeped in the history of R&B’s past, while her lyrics tell a story of a dystopian future stretched across 1 EP and 2 albums. Her performance persona is that of an android that’s teeming with life and personality. Her music often speaks of matters of the heart, but sounds as though it comes from the head. The Electric Lady is a meticulously recorded, brainy album with intellectual references, but stripped of all of its heady concepts and themes, it still lays bare as damn good.
None of the context is necessary to enjoy, for example, the rollicking single “Dance Apocalyptic”, or the Prince assisted funk of “Givin’ Em What They Love”. Actually, the first half of The Electric Lady (christened “Suite IV”) is Monae at her most immediate and accessible. Lead single “Q.U.E.E.N.”, featuring R&B fixture Erykah Badu, lays down sci-fi keyboards counter to a ridiculously catchy guitar riff and a “Don’t fuck with me” empowering hook, while the title track sounds like Beyonce in a 60s girl-group mood. This first half is also the more cameo heavy; Prince and Badu are here as mentioned, and Solange Knowles shows up on the title track while Monae croons with Miguel on love jam “Primetime”. The only minor slump in this first half is the discoy “We Were Rock & Roll”, which is one of the few times that the record’s numerous ideas get the better of the execution.
Suite V, meanwhile, is the more ornate section of an already embellished album. “It’s Code” starts the record’s back half on a high note: the song is great melodically between Monae’s top-of-her-game singing and the backing vocals in all the right places, and a careful listen turns up fantastic instrumentals from synths, strings, and textured guitars. “Ghetto Woman” has 70s shuffle, and the personal nature of the song as a tribute to Monae’s mother adds a human touch to an artist that typically aims for the head. Only in The Electric Lady‘s final stretch does it start sounding frazzled; “Victory”, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”, “Can’t Live Without Your Love”, “Sally Ride”, and “What An Experience” are all quality songs on their own, and form their own mini-suite together, but at least three of these sound like they’re the last song on the album. A 67 minute run time comes with some ending fatigue.
The first album that The Electric Lady reminded me of was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange: they’re both time/genre blending, expansive, almost auteur projects that hide their details in storytelling and allegory (sidenote: I guess Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories would also fit, although I’m not sure the album had anything to say beyond “Music is great!”). Ocean tucked his personal experiences into songs such as “Forrest Gump” or “Bad Religion”, whereas Monae uses her android concept as a vehicle to express “the other”. Empowerment and racial/sexual identity are themes woven into The Electric Lady‘s circuitry, but they’re done in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. To the contrary, the album’s three skits with DJ Crash Crash of WDRD ground both the album’s abstract social themes and sci-fi narrative, and are still entertaining on their own (“Our Favorite Fugitive” in particular screams Does This Remind You of Anything with callers dropping lines such as “People like that” and “Robot love is QUEER!” It’s also kind of hilarious).
A common criticism Monae is that she’s emotionally aloof in her music, and The Electric Lady tries to alleviate that. “Q.U.E.E.N.”, especially its rapped final verse that references Queen Nefertiti, Harriet Tubman, Bernie Grundman, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is practically Monae’s mission statement, while Suite V has affirmation in “Ghetto Woman”, and “It’s Code” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” are tinged by Monae’s personal tribulations as well. It’s hardly intimate, but that’s another of her dichotomies: her work can sound mechanical and removed in story, but there are striking moments of unguarded, overwhelming emotions that are inspiring the show.
Little is more terrifying than listening to the second album of an artist who hit acclaim on arrival, but Janelle Monae made some great changes between The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. It’s a looser, more accessible collection of songs that still expands the scope of her sound, and has just about something for everyone. All of the craft present on her debut is still here, even as she throws more ideas in the mix. It’s a stretch to call The Electric Lady flawless, but its only discernible flaw is the excessiveness that’s a mark of almost every album that wants to do this much (again, Channel Orange). Regardless, it’s a minor quip with an otherwise fantastic album, five stars out of five.
tl;dr: There’s an R&B heart at the center of this Lady, 5/5