Making it up with Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae’s record, the ArchAndroid, has something for everyone. Now, by this, I don’t mean she’s some sort of musical Wal-Mart. It’s more that she’s one of those hyper-achievers who do every possible thing well, but haven’t let that fact get in the way of her making a deeply moving masterpiece. The ArchAndroid is produced by Sean Combs and Big Boi, which means that every other copy-writing intern brain-dead from Old Monk and pot automatically says she’s R&B. This tells you nothing. Monae is probably more R&B than not, but saying that is like saying the Beatles are more rock ‘n’ roll than not.

Once in a blue moon, someone manages to get past the shiny hit single, Cold War, and skip through at least five or six of the other tracks: these people say Monae is “neofuturist” and “dystopian”, and that she “transcends genre”. That last one is particularly misleading. Not because it’s not true – it is, she does transcend genre, in fact, she transcends genre like genre has never been transcended before; she practically makes genre her backyard jungle-gym as she swings from bar to bar – but because it is the sort of statement that tends to unfairly hog the limelight. Janelle Monae’s incredible grasp of every known musical idiom deserves a book unto itself, but dwelling upon it in the context of her record makes her sound like one of those Berklee graduates who jerk off to Robert Fripp albums. Hopping styles is not Monae’s goal, it is merely a result of her vast artistic vocabulary. Like all the best records, the ArchAndroid isn’t brilliant because it’s diverse: it’s brilliant because it is beautiful.

In fact, in many ways, its diversity works against it: among other things, it makes it impossible to pick a single, representative track: Cold War is a big-budget floor-filler, but it is to the rest of the disc what Back in the USSR is to the White Album; the air-headed Wondaland would appeal to casual Blondie fans, but not necessarily to those of the Clash: they’d have Come Alive instead. Joni Mitchell-loving heart-on-sleeve types would like Oh Maker and Sir Greendown, but not much else. And anyone with any sense or taste would flip for the heaving, gorgeous singing on BaBopByeYa. And so forth.

This gives the ArchAndroid many convenient points of entry, but very few easy paths deeper inside. The whole of it can only be grasped via the old-fashioned – and frustrating – means of starting at the beginning and going on all the way through until the very end. And, at a full sixty-eight minutes, that’s one way to alienate the Twittering generation instantly.

Worse still, it is – and it shamelessly admits to being so – a concept album about an alien in love with an Earthling.

And this is what’s bizarre about her game: here’s someone who, by choice, plays to the Yes and Rush end of the stadium. You’d think no one would have the patience for that sort of long-winded carrying-on in this day and age, given that punk knocked the wind out of the sails of the concept album thirty-five years ago.

But Janelle Monae succeeds because she’s imaginative enough to turn a stiff, overbearing, unfashionable idea into something bursting with complicated, colourful emotion. She turns theatre to music. That is why she’s great.

She also has a voice from heaven, and dances like a breeze, and is the hottest woman in the world. That is why I love her so.


This article first appeared in Wild City on 7/8/12.

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