By Rif Raf
The first I’d heard of Janelle Monáe was some time in 2005 or 2006 in her early days with Deep Cotton. How would she do on the Purple Ribbon label – is the industry ready for her? Where does she fit in? Even on more traditional sounding songs such as “Peachtree Street Blues” it was apparent beneath the surface of her demure frame bubbled an intensity and conviction unseen by this generation probably since Michael Jackson, James Brown, Grace Jones, Betty Davis – the latter two whom far too many have no idea of. How would she fit in an industry predicated on the female image in pretty much every popular form of music centering around sexuality first – and talents second? Little did we know, Janelle had no intent of “fitting in” anywhere…
I think back to the liberating day I decided to quit a day job to document a band tour – her song “Lettin Go” was of the many that coaxed me out of a cushy law firm gig, down the road less traveled. Or her first official show as the persona “Cindi Mayweather” at Apache Cafe in Atlanta around this time in 2007. As Janelle seemingly broke character, spoke of her coming to Atlanta I noticed a young girl with whom I was standing shoulder to shoulder in a jam packed room. She beamed “This is my first time in Atlanta! I came all the way from Kansas City with my friends to see her!”. Janelle belted her riveting rendition of “Smile”, seemingly overwhelmed with emotion herself and the crowd alike. I left that show with EP in hand and somewhere with a heartstring tugged by the intensity of what I’d just experienced.
Fast-forward 3 years past the frenetic pace of shows from SXSW, AfroPunk, and Roots Picnic – all the way down to tiny community festivals. Even past her Grammy nominated teaser EP and not-so-hushed questions of “Why she sign with Puffy?”
Janelle Monae has finally arrived in the form of a superlative debut that not only transcends genres – but mediums of art.
I’m not going to pretend this is a totally objective review. This is the review of someone listening with the reserved excitement of a 9-year-old who inspects that Christmas box under the tree – hoping the contents yield the ”____________” they’ve been pining for. Well Christmas came early, the box is open…and I’m replete with joy doing that crazy Christmas jig we’ve all done albeit replaced with some version of the “Tightrope.”
I’ll save the routine of track-by-track analysis, which has already been done quite well here and here. My policy on reviews is simple: If I don’t have anything nice to say, I don’t say anything at all. I’ve a lot to say here. I’ll only mention this one time feeling similarly inspired the first time I heard Lauryn’s debut, Gnarls Barkley, OutKast transformation on the last two albums – or the general ‘feel goodness’ inspiration you’d get from a Minnie Riperton song (namely the bravado of “Les Fleurs”).
ArchAndroid is a well-crafted work of emotion, creativity and commitment to push boundaries. Claiming “Wondaland” as a creative fortress and “music as our weapon” a sentiment by the late AfroBeat originator Fela Kuti who himself was influenced by the same Godfather of Soul whom Janelle evokes comparison. ArchAndroid feels like the spearhead moment destined to cement Monáe in the grey area of the overused labels “conscious” and “commercial.” The cover could easily be mistaken your Moms/Pops’ Earth Wind Fire collection.
While undoubtedly varied, ArchAndroid is through and through rooted in Monáe’s ability to embed and transfer as much human emotion into your mp3, CD, and vinyl imaginable. Each song seems to be a little gem, a snippet of the emotion picture storyline, each song greater than the sum of its parts. I lay in bed the first night hearing this CD, sleeping with the album on continual loop, and in the end…I can’t really review this album for you. Its a sort of call and response that inspires you to define your own “tightrope” and as Janelle Monáe issued from her twitter account the day of her release:
“ArchAndroid was written for you, the 1 who wants to be Respected 4 being yourself. This music was meant 2 empower u. U have a voice.”
The only real word of advice is for the uninitiated or those not fans of Kurzweil or Octavia Butler: Don’t be caught up in the android allegory. What would wax as cryptic really makes sense when you think of Monae not as this isolated occurrence of whimsical talk of human android relations – but almost as a modern day culmination of various popular forms of music with a dash of social commentary. Android can be conceivably substituted for anything considered ‘other’ as Monáe elaborated in an interview with Pinboard magazine. Then again she puts on a convincing android.
What is certain is the significance ArchAndroid holds. It ignores genre with essential nods to AfroBeat and Fela Kuti’s ‘Zombie’ rapping “Ghettos crawling to a street full of zombies/kids killing kids/tell the kid join the army” to “Wondaland” which is a sweet confectionery track inviting you into the creative nucleus of her comrades, and “Mushroom & Roses” which is set to spawn as much psychedelic inspiration as the Beatles classics “Strawberry Fields” and “Yellow Submarine”. These comparisons are useless, as Janelle without question commands her own beat to her own “funky” drummer. Only one group registers as remotely similar: Parliament Funkadelic. With its own fantasy world, spaceships, “swing down sweet chariot and let me ride” etc. Parliament is not so far detached from Monae’s “Metropolis,” “Wondaland,” and talk of Androids. And granted their long lasting influence on genres and generations to follow, this is no bad indication of what Janelle has in store.
While the difference between Monae and virtually every other contemporary artist are stark – she still appeals to broad audiences. Her own vow to “represent the working class” is refreshingly similar to an icon she is oft compared – James Brown. Monae constantly demands excellence as a challenge to herself, her collective of artists, and her audience to ‘follow their true dreams’ as she positions herself leader of the “creative new world” donning the phrase “imagination inspires nations” its pledge of allegiance. “ArchAndroid” is not alienating, as all the android talk would have you believe, but feels like a more heartfelt product of “grinding” or “going in” that allows Janelle to identify with broad groups from your parents and peers and across race, orientation, or ethnicity. Some tracks such as “Make the Bus” will undoubtedly raise eyebrows of those both familiar and unfamiliar with guest Of Montreal.
Still, in its entirety ArchAndroid seems a counterbalance to what some consider laughable trends in modern music: Both socially engaging and genuinely entertaining. The ‘tightrope’ almost registers as the more snazzy, dapper and smoothly polished big brother to the “stanky leg”, her Wondaland ensemble effortlessly gospelized Roscoe Dash’s “All the Way Turnt Up” – all the while inspiring MIT’s acapella ensemble cover of “Many Moons.” In all of which done in a non-pretentious whirlwind of Funk, Punk, PunkDance, cyber R&B, or whatever you want to call it – its clear Monáe is intent on trailblazing a new path “Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry.” A path that is sure to captivate her current and future legion of fans all swept into the cyclonic kinetic spell of her performances. Sincerest heartfelt congratulations to Janelle Monáe and anyone anticipating this album: Good things can happen to you too, and are well worth the wait – ArchAndroid is certainly no exception.