TheGrio’s 100: Janelle Monáe, of-the-moment artist with timeless appeal
Make no mistake — 2010 was a big year for Janelle Monáe. The tuxedo-clad, perfectly coifed artist burst onto the Billboard charts with the funky, dance-along single “Tightrope.” Magazines from Vogue to Vibe featured the songstress, whose first studio album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), was nominated for two 2011 Grammy awards. But Monáe’s seemingly sudden success has been in the works for half a decade, and it’s only just beginning.
The 25-year-old, Atlanta-based Afrofuturist has twice bypassed the ostensible path to stardom thus far. First, the Kansas-City native took an early departure from a theater scholarship at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Instead of bounding towards Broadway, Monáe relocated to Atlanta, where she began producing solo work and meeting other artists.
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Her unique sound and style grabbed the attention of hip-hop insider Big Boi of Outkast, who featured the then-21-year-old singer on 2006 Outkast album Idlewild, which debuted at number two on the Billboard 200. Big Boi passed Monáe’s MySpace to P. Diddy, who signed the young artist to his label, Bad Boy Records, in 2008. Here came her second stardom side step: bypassing a sure-fire Billboard single featuring one of her reputable rapper advocates, and opting instead to physically release her already available-for-download 2007 concept EP, Metropolis Suite I (The Chase).
Janelle Monáe is making history … by being, at once, of-the-moment and timeless. Her foresight to await the congealing of her unique style — visual, lyrical — sets her apart from other musicians. The artist’s vision for a four-suite concept solo creation engendered her 2007 EP, and she took another two virtually fame-less years to refine her first studio album, a follow up to Metropolis. “My goal was not to become an overnight success,” said the artist in 2010. “You have to be ready and prepared and I took the time to complete my album and grow, to fully understand my purpose as an artist and to hone my craft.”
By all appearances, Monáe has done just that.
What’s next for Janelle?
Monáe continues to collaborate with Wondaland Arts Society, a collective the Atlanta musician founded in 2005 with like-minded artists. She plans to complete her four-suite concept work, inspired by the 1920s Fritz Lang film Metropolis. For a fresh face on the music scene, Monáe has the long game in mind. “I hope [my album] stays around like Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life — it has that potential,” she told the BBC in May. “I think the music exceeds all genres. This album is for the people.”
In her own words …
“There was a lot of confusion and nonsense where I grew up, so I reacted by creating my own little world,” the musician said in her Atlantic Records profile in 2008. “I began to see how music could change lives, and I began to dream about a world where every day was like anime and Broadway, where music fell from the sky and anything could happen.”
A little-known fact …
Monáe grew up in Kansas City’s Quindaro community, founded in 1856 by abolitionists and Wyandot Indians to assist runaway slaves. The neighborhood was home to the first school for black children west of the Mississippi.
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