Reviewed on this page:
Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) - The ArchAndroid - The Electric Lady - Dirty Computer
It's frankly terrifying how talented Kansas City's Janelle Monáe is, as everything she does - writing, singing, dancing, interviewing -
is mannered but heartfelt, familiar but novel, flawless but human... Like Bowie and maybe no one else, she exists in a rarified realm of Cool that makes it seem everyone should be doing what she's doing (in her case, creating multi-disc science fiction concept albums based on 20s silent films). Monáe's vocal instrument has a rich timbre like Beyoncé's, but she generally uses it with icy detachment more befitting Keely Smith or Deborah Harry, which only makes it more startling when she dives into unfettered expression ("Come Alive").
And somehow she's managed to develop her own style and tight-knit community - Wondaland Arts Society - while being championed by Master of the Lowest Common Denominator Sean Combs.
I've seen five or six Monáe live shows so far, but have only reviewed one.
A collection of early recordings has circulated online as The Audition - I'm not going to review that as if it were a real album, but it's an intriguing look at Monáe at her most conventional.
Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007)
Monáe's debut EP kicking off a multi-album science fiction narrative (shades of Coheed & Cambria) is an intriguing blend of elements from across the musical map. The mix of cheesy keyboards, electronica beats and serious lyrical content recalls The Knux ("Violet Stars Happy Hunting!"), but she also moves organically from singing to rapping, dance grooves to soothing synth washes ("Many Moons," a single), full orchestra to tinny samples, until you get the impression she can master any musical form she comes across. For all her facility, though, the actual songwriting lacks depth (apart from the stunning "Sincerely, Jane") - if I'd heard this before ArchAndroid, I might've thought she was more flash than substance. Produced by Monáe, Chuck Lightning and Control Z.
A 2008 reissue has two bonus tracks: the straightforward retro-soul "Mr. President" (with an Ernie Isley-style solo) and a guitar-and-voice cover of "Smile."(DBW)
The ArchAndroid (2010)
Monáe's first full-length comprises Suites II and III of her SF saga.
As on the previous EP, Monáe invests a hundred years of kitsch - from Tin Pan Alley to psychedelica to electronica - with soul, giving resonance to her storyline about a messianic android, and this time the melodies are as strong as the concept ("Wondaland").
Unlike contemporaries like Flying Lotus, Monáe invests her hi-tech mood-shifting experiments with solid tunes, elevating them out of the curiosity category (the concluding suite "BaBopByeYa").
The uptempo numbers are memorable ("Cold War"; "Tightrope" with exec producer Big Boi) while the lush midtempo pieces are more so ("Oh, Maker"; "Say You'll Go").
Though there are minor weaknesses - some of the dance tracks are ordinary ("Dance Or Die" featuring Saul Williams), the orchestral overtures are pretentious - the only true flop is a guest shot from mannered retro-trendsters of Montreal ("Make The Bus").
Produced by Monáe, Lightning and Nate "Rocket" Wonder - Control Z is still on the team but in a reduced role.
In 2012 Monáe appeared on fun.'s hit single "We Are Young."
The Electric Lady (2013)
Suites Four and Five of the sequel-creeping, now seven-part Metropolis series.
The opening fifteen sequence is virtuosic, combining R&B and soul tropes into a futuristic blend: despite the presence of big-name guests (a terrific Erykah Badu verse on the "Charlie's Angels Theme"-quoting leadoff single "Q.U.E.E.N."; Prince vocals and guitar on "Givin' 'Em What They Love") Monáe's individuality is in no danger of being overshadowed.
However, several of the genre exercises are slender if pleasant (the gentle love song "PrimeTime" featuring Miguel; the peppy "Dance Apocalyptic"); lead guitarist Kellindo Parker's limited bag of tricks is overexposed ("Victory"; "We Were Rock N' Roll"); Suite V has one too many atmospheric mood pieces with no clear melody ("Dorothy Dandridge Eyes," an inferior rewrite of "Say You'll Go"). Perhaps most damaging, a bunch of faux-talk radio interludes simplify the whole android concept into a straightforward "prejudice is bad, mmkay?" morality play ("The Chrome Shoppe")."Sally Ride" is the distilled essence of the disc, good and bad: pro-woman mission; nerd cred; lovely vocal; more mood than melody; too much string-bending from Parker.
A Target-only physical release includes four bonus tracks including a stunning cover of "I Want You Back."
Produced with Wonder and Lightning; co-produced by Roman GianArthur. (DBW)
The Eephus (Wondaland Presents: 2015)
Monáe appears on one track ("Yoga" featuring Jidenna) of this EP showcasing her vanity label. In 2015 Monáe also released a new version of the Electric Lady bonus track "Hell You Talmbout" with lyrics referencing people of color killed by police.
In 2016 Moná appeared on the charity single "This Is For My Girls" and contributed to the soundtracks of The Get Down ("Hum Along And Dance (Gotta Get Down)") and Hidden Figures ("Jalapeño"). Oh, and played major roles in a couple of Oscar-winning movies.
Dirty Computer (2018)
Wow, Monáe dropped all her distancing techniques at once: This isn't part of the Metropolis cycle, she's not in her Cindi Mayweather android persona, she's not wearing a tuxedo, she's gone from deflecting questions about her sexuality to writing bi- and poly-positive anthems ("Crazy Classic Life"). Basically she's fresh out of fucks. And yep, she cusses when she feels like it ("Screwed"). So this would be guaranteed to get attention even if the music were pedestrian (*cough* Lemonade *cough*) but blessedly the songs are more consistently rewarding than before. The backbone of the album is infectious dance-pop ("Americans"; "Make Me Feel"), fortified with everything from lush mood pieces (title track, with gorgeous wordless vocals from Mr. Gorgeous Wordless Vocals; "I Like That") to complex, sweeping statements ("Pynk" featuring Grimes) to simmering hip hop ("Django Jane," my favorite Monáe song of all). "Don't Judge Me" is the sort of ethereal ballad that got out of hand on Electric Lady but it fits in this context.
I know I'm not the only one who's been suicidally depressed ever since Trump won, but there are reasons to stay alive and Janelle Monáe is near the top of the list.
The Wilsie don't lie.