Janelle Monae’s signature pompadour is not the only thing about her that is larger than life. In her debut album “The ArchAndroid”, Janelle’s incredible voice powers through varied pop sounds, explosive lyrics, and intense lyrical visuals. Move over teen pop sensations; the real Queen of a sample-heavy, erratic era has finally arrived!
Monae’s music simply cannot be pooled into a single word or category, even if she is drawing from an expansive, familiar palette of sounds. You’ll find her seamlessly combining classic jazz, soul, funk, pop, African vibes, and alternative sounds; yet somehow she keeps all of these parts in their right place. For someone so fresh to the music scene, she is not at all intimidated to experiment.
One of the most compelling features of “The ArchAndroid” is the story it tells. Janelle weaves a tale of her futuristic alter ego Cindi Mayweather who lives in a land of androids in the year 3005. Each song develops a new chapter of this dystopic future.
She starts right away. In the second song of the album, “Dance or Die”, Janelle combines spoken-word, synthesizers, and jazz instruments into a catchy swing-your-hips type of beat. But you’ll also find a compelling lyrical layer, immersed in a futuristic world full of homicide, racism, and political unrest. (“Ghettos keep a crying out to streets full of zombies/ Kids are killing kids and then the kids join the army”). The parallels between Cindi’s world and our own are sadly provoking. Is this America?
The next two tracks, “Faster” and “Locked Inside,” dance around the fears of falling in love within such a world (“faster, faster I should run / faster, faster from your arms”). It is a place where a woman can expect to be overpowered in the midst of male-dominated social norms (“I’m locked inside land called foolish price/ Where the man is always right—he hates to talk, but loves to fight”).
Listeners are later thrown for a loop with “Neon Gumbo”, which takes on an almost Indian music-like quality and is compromised only of wordless vocal noises. The subsequent songs progressively slow down, much like the conclusion of a long novel. “Make the Bus” reignites the excitement, only to calm down once more with “57821”—a Simon and Garfunkel cover.
And then there’s “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” the first two singles from the record. Both have a Top 40 catchiness, but neither at the expense of being progressive. “Cold War” fuses her R&B base with a wild rock slip. Other artists have tried the two together, but here we find them compatible in unique ways. On her other single, she exceeds even the vocal tightroping of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” while creating some crazy, unique rhymes with word-master Big Boi. These really are essential listens.
Underneath the funk and powerful vocals lie a story of redemption. Monae’s character, Cindi Mayweather, is a “new age savior.” Surrounded by lifeless androids, her world is devoid of all love and compassion She recalls a humanity before the androids, kind and beautiful. Her lyrics easily relate to important and relevant personal, social and global issues.
This, combined with all of Monae’s already mentioned talents, makes “The ArchAndroid” the beginning of what may be a new world of musical compositions.