One of the most offensively sexist critical crutches is the diminishing addendum of “protege” applied primarily to female artists subtly hinted to be be ventriloquist dummies for more talented Father-Miyagi male musicians. (see also M.I.A. as Diplo’s protege) Though Janelle Monae has built a resume as producer, vocalist, writer and arranger, her work with Andrew 3000 and Big Boi apparently makes her their understudies.
I wish the sound quality of this clip could convey “Sincerely, Jane’s” orchestral bombast. Unlike other uses of classical music in songs steeped in the hip hop tradition (where piano loops or violin shards suffice), the song is actually structured in grand movements with Monae displaying an acrobatic range in what amounts to a scalding litany of misery, blistering accusation and disdain for humankind. In short, it’s fantastic. Think Shirley Bassey having Marianne Faithful put a cigarette out in her eye. I also love the crazy clash in her onstage image: equal parts Grace Jones aggression and small-framed Anita Baker swaying.
I’m cautiously optimistic about her debut. Monae reminds me of Macy Gray and Imani Coppola (whose new project Little Jackie is my othersummer obsession) in that she borrows from several genres and the chemistry is either pop perfection or simply dull dilution. Macy Gray in particular embodies the pitfalls of having a voice with no vision, resulting in songs that generically clip the tips of various fads and frenzies. I think Janelle has more talent, style and depth, but for every successful genre alchemist there are dozens of Cree Summer’s, Rosey’s, and Nikka Costa’s.
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