Tuesday, September 10, 2013

album review: 'the electric lady' by janelle monae

Back in my review of Robin Thicke's album Blurred Lines, I mentioned why R&B as a genre doesn't tend to work for me as well as others, mostly because I've found the traditional topics in their songwriting a little overused. Now, you get this in every genre, but it got on my nerves a lot more in R&B because so many of the artists had a serious problem in having their songs be criminally underwritten, instead preferring to fill the verses with vocal gymnastics and other such elements that might sound pretty but don't really have a lot of substance.

Now I'll admit that my particular point of view has already been proven wrong once this year by Ariana Grande, but to be fair, she was using the conventional songwriting topics for R&B, just written with a little bit more wit and sharp poetry. But considering that I do like to be proven wrong when in the process I'm exposed to great music, I finally took the opportunity to get into the discography of Janelle Monae, an R&B act who has amassed some serious critical acclaim and who reportedly eschewed genres traditions in favour of weirder topics. And while I definitely was optimistic, I remembered the catastrophic example of 30 Seconds To Mars and I prepared myself for the worst.

Instead, I was blown out of the water. Folks, if you're not listening to Janelle Monae and her Afrofuturist sci-fi masterpieces, you should be. Not only are her high-concept topics of choice brilliantly realized in some of the most innovative and strikingly original ways I've seen in a long time, she's also an extraordinarily talented singer and songwriter, fusing a dozen genres of the past into a coherent, frequently beautiful whole that somehow remains catchy and emotionally evocative just the same. I'll admit that I'm a serious sucker for great space rock (and Janelle Monae is one of the best in the genre, hands-down), but I'm still stunned by how well she manages to make so many disparate genres sound distinctly fresh and new, breathing new life into them in a way I haven't seen since Daft Punk released Random Accessed Memories earlier this year (before that, I'd probably have to go all the way back to The Love Below from OutKast). People say that Justin Timberlake is innovating in R&B - all respect to Justin Timberlake, but he doesn't possess a tenth of the imagination, soul, and creative genius that Janelle Monae has.

And I could spend the next several hours raving about how the music is striking and unique and how Janelle Monae sells all of her material with well-chosen and incredibly heartfelt emotion and how she manages to get her guest stars swept up in her eclectic vision and how her Afrofuturistic themes are a perfect blend of past and future African-American art synthesized from multiple generations and how even with her high-minded ideals she still has that streak of populism to make her music compelling to a wider audience, but really, all I need to say is this: Janelle Monae is to R&B what Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project is to metal. And if you're one of the three people who are looking at this and know what the Ayreon project is, you'll understand precisely how high of a compliment that is.

So to say that my expectations for her new album, The Electric Lady were high is a bit of an understatement. Continuing her ongoing space-epic saga from her 2010 album The ArchAndroid and recruiting guest stars like Miguel, Erykah Badu, Solange, and even Prince, one of the legends of R&B himself, I was incredibly excited to find out her newest album was coming out this month, and I was looking forward to seeing how her story would continue. So what does the next chapter in her story look like?

Well, it's definitely great, and most certainly something you all should check out - but at the same time, I can't help but feel a little underwhelmed by The Electric Lady, mostly because it doesn't quite manage to match The ArchAndroid across the board. Now do not get me wrong, The Electric Lady is still one of the best albums of the year and something you should all check out sooner rather than later (at least buy this instead of that wretched excuse of a record from 2 Chainz), but it's not quite as strong as The ArchAndroid, at least to me. Granted, I suspect I'm not quite the target audience, but I'll get to that a bit later.

Let's start with the instrumentation, which I'll immediately say is pretty much great across the board. Janelle Monae does a fantastic job revitalizing funk and soul and gospel and disco and modern R&B into a fusion that feels fresh and very exciting. I'll admit that since this summer has seen a modest disco revival, her sound isn't quite as unique as it was back in 2010, but then again, that's not entirely her fault, and she often does a great job making her sound distinctive all the same, with a lot of catchy rhythms and plenty of guitar solos just waiting for the right moment to spring out and add a bit of grit to the scene.

That being said, outside of a few exceptions (mostly 'Dance Apocalyptic', with its quasi-folk acoustic guitar), this album doesn't seem to have the same breadth of influences and experimentation that made The ArchAndroid so compelling. That's not saying The Electric Lady doesn't experiment, but it seems a distinctly 'safer' album than its predecessor, and for a guy who really dug the wide selection of instruments and odd divergences on The ArchAndroid, I was a little disappointed to find elements of The Electric Lady significantly more 'conventional'. In other words, there's nothing as ballsy as 'Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)' on this album, and that's frustrating for me. And once again, that's not saying that this album isn't funky or doesn't have really potent grooves that stuck with me - but at the same time, in comparison with the previous album, it seems like a much more conventional record and doesn't quite live up to its potential instrumentally, at least in terms of diversity.

Where I will definitely praise this album is in its choice of supporting stars, as everybody delivers here in a way that still keeps the spotlight fixed on Janelle Monae. Prince in particular contributes his best verse in years, and while Miguel doesn't really blow my mind, he's more than passable on 'PrimeTime' and delivers a great performance. Erykah Badu is also great on 'Q.U.E.E.N.', delivering a verse that is very much in line with the best of her material, and it's definitely an early highlight of the album for me. Where I will find an issue is in Janelle Monae's delivery - don't get me wrong, her voice is absolutely beautiful and she's still magnificent on all of her tracks, but I do feel with the lessened experimentation, we don't get to see as many facets of her vocal delivery as we did on the previous album.

Now some of you are undoubtedly a little annoyed that I keep pointing out that Janelle Monae really didn't innovate the same way instrumentally - well, I suspect the reason for that is that she chose to confine the majority of her innovations to her lyrics, which have taken a very different tone in comparison with her first album. So let's talk about the songwriting, themes, and narrative - because, since Janelle Monae is opting to continue her story from the previous albums, it's still relevant. What's a bit frustrating for me is that Janelle Monae's form of songwriting doesn't quite lend itself well to linear, coherent storytelling - but to be fair, it never really has, with her songs establishing more continuity based upon mood and atmosphere, with tantalizing hints dropped through her lyrics that reflected the larger story. With that in mind, The Electric Lady takes place where The ArchAndroid left off, with the separation of Monae's android character Cindi Mayweather with the human with which she fell in love. The story thus continues showing Cindi exploring her sexuality and place as an outsider as her cult of personality grows, with rumours that she is, in fact, the legendary ArchAndroid from the future (yes, there is time travel in this story).

Let me start by saying that the good elements of Janelle Monae's songwriting are still here - she's always been able to paint stark, vivid pictures with her songs, and she's a solid technical songwriter with a lot of great lyrical flow. And for the most part, this album has a good flow, showing how Monae's character is exploring her boundaries as opposition rises against her, and as with the previous album, The Electric Lady ends on another beautifully bittersweet note, with a sexual encounter that seems to lead to a wistful parting as the party ends (or they remain together, it's a little tough to tell - either way, I was left feeling distinctly melancholic at the end of the album). This is an album about desperately seeking new connections, and there are moments (like on the heartbreaking 'Sally Ride') where Monae seems almost ready to give up in the face of opposition.

Of course, the sexuality and gender of said partner has sparked some debate among critics, so let's get this out of the way. Yes, there have been numerous questions surrounding Janelle Monae's sexuality, and it would be extremely easy to read strong lesbian subtext into her songs on this album - hell, it's probably the most explicit parts of the narrative, almost most than the sci-fi premise. And some of Monae's comments on the matter, particularly regarding the feeling of the 'other' - whether it be as a black woman or as a lesbian - have raised plenty of other questions. But here's my conclusion - in the end, it's kind of irrelevant, sort of in the same way David Bowie's sexuality is kind of irrelevant at this point. It's clear that Monae identifies in some way as a sexual being - that's definitely an undercurrent throughout all of her material - and the overarching emotions and themes that's she's trying to evoke throughout The ArchAndroid and especially The Electric Lady are linked to that general identity, not one specific preference. It's also clear that love and passion and the sense of connecting with another are far more important to Monae than any stigma associated with said connection - in fact, there are moments explicitly on this album that show evidence of said stigma in her narrative's society against these couplings, and while she's aware of that stigma, she refuses to let it compromise her relationship. That's a powerful message, and while I don't think it hits me as hard as it'll inevitably strike others, I can respect the core thesis of the message all the same.

But here's my issue: while I can definitely respect and appreciate her message, I don't think it was delivered as well as the underlying themes on The ArchAndroid were, mostly due to a problem of execution. Instead of using instrumental cues or subtleties in the lyrics or delivery to imply her themes, Monae instead opts to use radio DJ interludes which feel imported from a hip-hop album from the mid-2000s - and man, does it do damage to the flow of this album. What's more aggravating is that they aren't subtle or particularly insightful on their own merits, instead just providing chunks of plot information with the same over-the-top delivery that's common to all bad radio DJs. And that's not even touching on the fact that this album - like all of Janelle Monae's albums - feels like it runs a little short on momentum near the end with a series of slower ballads. Don't get me wrong, the majority of them are solid as all hell, but it does mean the album drags a bit.

And this takes me to probably my biggest issue with the album, and that's linked to the ongoing narrative. While I do think that Janelle Monae's story certainly remains interesting and unique among the pop culture landscape, I do feel that The Electric Lady is a bit of a holding pattern. Instead of greater experimentation with new elements or the introduction of a villain into her story, Janelle Monae seems to have 'raised the stakes' through the introduction of 'controversial' subject matter regarding sexuality - that ultimately doesn't feel all that controversial, at least to me, especially considering the guest stars she recruited who have a reputation for singing openly about sexuality (Prince and Erykah Badu) and the fact that disco was primarily the music of the gay subculture until co-opted by the mainstream. Yes, I get that sexual politics are a much bigger issue in the United States and will probably ring with a lot more impact south of the border, but to me, it didn't feel like there was the same level of conflict and clash that was on The ArchAndroid, which doesn't help the tension in the overall narrative. I know this is the kind of criticism the vast majority of people don't give a damn about one way or the other, but it did still get on my nerves a bit, because it speaks of unused potential. Janelle Monae could have created a truly intriguing and riveting personality for a villain (even if it's just a strawman) or could have chosen to inject dramatic tension in her relationship that would have required an incredibly emotive performance... and yet, any conflict feels a little stunted to me, not really matching the layered and nuanced issues of which I know (from The ArchAndroid) that Janelle Monae is capable of exploring.

But then again, I can't deny that the conflict Monae does introduce feels more personal, at least to her. And I can definitely appreciate that it probably doesn't resonate the same way with me as it would with other audiences, who confront and struggle with these issues daily. Do I wish that it had resonated with me more? Of course I do, but to some extent, I'm not entirely surprised that it doesn't, particularly given the pervading sense of isolation among the crowd that Monae delivers. It's the concept of the other taken to its logical conclusion, that of the loneliness of the other who desperately wants a connection. I just wish that the narrative tension had been conveyed a bit stronger so I could have made that greater connection too. 

All of that being said, I still highly, highly recommend The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae. While you don't need to have listened to the previous albums before listening to this (it does work as a standalone piece, another plus in its favour), I do recommend you check out Janelle Monae's earlier work just to get an idea of how Janelle Monae executes her material. On its own, however, it's one of the best albums of the year, rising up with Random Accessed Memories by Daft Punk as a great fusion of funk and disco (among other genres) with modern music, and I was thrilled to enjoy it. 

And while I don't often like to be in the position of advocating on behalf of artists... people, Janelle Monae's competition this week for album sales is goddamn 2 Chainz. She deserves to win this. Go out and get this record - you definitely won't regret it.

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