Janelle Monáe‎ - The Electric Lady | Album Review | By Volume

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Janelle Monáe‎

The Electric Lady

Androids rejoice — your champion has returned.

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Author: on September 24, 2013
Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy
September 6, 2013

It’s certainly impressive that a record like The Electric Lady exists, with all of its progressive pomp, debuting at number five on the Billboard 200 in the America of 2013. Monáe’s concept draws plenty of parallels to the state of said America within the extended metaphor of a persecuted Android sub-human class introduced on 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I and expanded upon through follow-up The ArchAndroid. Most literally, this struggle represents a direct analogue to the ever-evolving civil rights struggle of race, gender, and sexuality. But what isn’t so obvious and likely intentionally disguised, is the full multimedia and sociopolitical temporal arc over the course of the three releases. Monáe proves herself to be a polymath of sorts — as a student of social justice, performance art, and Soul music (inclusive of funk, blues, jazz, and their rock fusion offshoots), she pools these interests together into a unique brand of historical retrospective. Leading single “Q.U.E.E.N.” finds itself as a prime example of this amalgam, with its 80s synth funk come jazz-rap outtro. In the latter section, Monáe expounds her fellow droids‘ racial plight and the country’s state of institutionalized repression via financialization:

Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City

This construed relationship between financial repression and civil rights undoubtedly draws from the US’s historically growing plutocracy, diminishing middle class, and social struggles dating back to slavery.  But when combined with Monáe’s well-studied soundtrack (to be completely clear: there is no genre-hopping here, more-so genre-coexisting), the concept inflates dramatically, emphasizing the simple truth that humanity as a whole, not only lives and breathes for this exact moment, but for every moment we’ve experienced and progress we’ve made. This is the true beauty of The Electric Lady; it’s a simple project at face value with an underlying cerebral message of positivity, change, and discovery of the all-encompassing truth — whatever that may be.

Janelle Monáe is surely an artist first and foremost; while this shines brilliantly through her concept at large, all of her music videos, and even live performances, the complete package is certainly something greater than the musical substance within.  The Electric Lady revamps the ideas of ArchAndroid, taking her prior soul experimentations, updating them, and turning them into more focused, pop-driven affairs. This truly expands the envelope for tracks like the self-titled “Electric Lady” — a head-nodding affair and certifiable banger. “We Were Rock and Roll” lives in this same space, instead pulling from an imaginary place in history where arena rock co-existed with only the greatest of Motown classics. But Janelle’s larger than life vision here also acts as a detractor; one can’t help but imagine a reality where The Electric Lady escaped its bloated nineteen-track length. The transition of “Look Into My Eyes” into Suite V’s overture and “It’s Code” acts as a snore inducing array of ballads that lack any sort of excitement the “Primetime” duet with Miguel brought to the table.  At best, Suite V comes across as uninspired, with the exception of the very personal “Ghetto Woman” (an ode to motherhood) and the synth-pop driven island ska of “What an Experience”.

While The Electric Lady suffers from some minor inconsistencies, it is surely a worthy follow-up to The ArchAndroid, not only inspiring as a multidimensional work, but also further expanding expectations for what thought-provoking soul music could be.  Hopefully next time around Monáe will trim the fat while innovating on the successes of each suite — a tall order perhaps, yet reasonable considering her artistic potential and passion for life at large.

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