There’s a perfectly good reason why I never thought of Michael Jackson as the “King of Pop”. It’s not because I’m a hater. It’s not that I thought he was undeserving of the title. It’s that I always thought of Michael Jackson as an entire category unto himself. How, I wondered, could he be “of” anything? He was his own genre. Same thing with the Beatles. James Brown. Ella Fitzgerald. Aretha.
I’m not saying Janelle Monáe Robinson has reached the status of Michael Jackson. Nor am I suggesting that she can lay claim to an entire genre—at least not yet. If, however, you’re looking for the “total package”, this little lady from the state of Kansas comes awfully close. Perhaps more importantly, she’s got all the makings of a genuine ‘70s and ‘80s rock star, and they sure don’t make a lot of those anymore. These days, it’s about the everyman and everywoman singing relatable tunes, not some rock god or goddess belting out larger-than-life stadium anthems. This is the age of the familiar, not the foreign.
Janelle Monáe’s rock star bona fides are all intact. She’s got vocals for days, wielding a voice that can be as gentle as a ballad in a Disney movie or so big and thunderous her five foot (1.524 meter) frame hardly seems fit to contain it. A rock star needs an iconic look, and her outfit of choice is timeless and appropriate: a tuxedo, black and perfectly pressed. Her hairstyle includes a gravity-defying pompadour. She makes songs like “Neon Gumbo”, composed with backwards lyrics and a reversed sample of her older tune “Many Moons”, like the stuff Prince added to the end of Darling Nikki. Like any self-respecting rock star, she’s fabulous and glam and entertainingly weird, traits you could easily pick up from her interviews. When it comes to music, though, she’s focused, message-oriented, and dedicated to uplifting her listeners.
Better still, she absolutely brings the hotness to her live show. Hyperactive, to the point of appearing possessed, Janelle Monáe is a firecracker, a combination of James Brown and David Bowie, among others. She’s undulating, twisting, gyrating, the embodiment of constant motion. There’s no lip synching here, folks, and did I mention that she moonwalks like nobody’s business? The sista can dance.
Musically, she’s a live wire, a genre-hopper who touches R&B and prog rock with as much verve as she handles jazz, cabaret, rap, doo-wop, and disco. She’s chic with a rockabilly lean, smart yet fun, and a gleeful student of Pink Floyd, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Grace Jones. She ought to be a member of OutKast, but instead of shaking it “like a Polaroid picture”, she shakes it “like a schizo”. She’s the daughter of George Clinton and Parliament’s “Star Child” who occasionally borrows the “mothership” and takes it out for a spin. She’s Cinderella, but she wears James Brown’s dress shoes (without socks!) in lieu of slippers. She’s Lady Stardust.
She is, quite honestly, the best signee to Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy label since the Notorious B.I.G., and signing her was certainly Diddy’s most interesting choice since he made those kids on Making the Band walk all the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn, New York to secure him some cheesecake.
Still not convinced? Nothing gives you rock star cred like having the necessary self-indulgence to craft a concept album or rock opera. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Green Day’s American Idiot, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On are among those often cited as examples of the concept album phenomenon. Throw your favorite album by the Who in there somewhere too (I pick Tommy), and I’ll add MF Doom’s Mm..Food. Such albums are exciting, sprawling, and ambitious, but also given to excess. Where there’s a concept, it seems that metaphor and symbolism cannot be far behind. No wonder the English word “conceit” means “vanity” or “arrogance” and, in literary circles, also refers to an “extended metaphor”.
Janelle Monáe’s concept began with Suite I of a IV-suite series in 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite. There, Ms. Monáe was an “alien from outer space”, inhabiting the persona of Cindi Mayweather, female android #57821 living in the year 2719. Mayweather falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. Unfortunately, such fraternizing with humans is a major faux pas, so the powers that be have designated Android #57821 for immediately disassembly. It’s a little like the 1986 film Short Circuit, except this robot is an unbelievable singer, dancer, and performer. Likewise, Janelle Monáe’s fictional world of 2719 owes a few nods to Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi dystopian film, Metropolis. With smooth crooning, and music that could’ve come straight out of a James Bond flick, Suite I chronicled Cindi Mayweather’s plight and her experience on the lam.
The year 2010 sees the release of the sequel to Suite I, The ArchAndroid. Actually, it’s two sequels, Suite II (11 songs) and Suite III (seven songs), and both parts add substantial pathos to the Mayweather saga. The ArchAndroid isn’t like Prince Paul’s Prince Among Thieves, which offers a straightforward narrative. Nor is it as thematically unified as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or even Hear, My Dear. It is, nevertheless, close to being cousins with David Bowie’s The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust, except where Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust succumbed to self-destruction and Rock & Roll suicide, The ArchAndroid trumpets the awakening and ascension of Cindi Mayweather. As the boundaries between Bowie and his alter ego were often blurred, the divisions between Monáe and Mayweather are similarly difficult to discern.
Suites II and III, then, are touted as an “emotion picture”, painted in the style of a French impressionist, and positioning Cindi Mayweather as a messiah to androids, ready to unleash her superpowers. It’s her very own fairytale, not unlike St. Vincent scoring Disney films on mute for her Actor album, Natalie Merchant setting poetry and lullabies to music for her Leave Your Sleep double album, or even writer Anne Sexton embellishing classic tales in her Transformations book of poetry.
The usual comparison is to Keanu Reeves’s “Neo” character in The Matrix trilogy, but that’s not quite right, is it? That downplays the significance of Cindi Mayweather’s gender, a female messiah. How about this: keep the reference to The Matrix but look at it as if Carrie-Anne Moss’s leather-clad (and somewhat robotic-moving) “Trinity” is really The One, or at least as crucial to the story as Neo. They could be the Wonder Twins of their messianic tale. That’s the only way the films ever made any sense to me. In the original film, Trinity found Neo, helped him unplug from the machine-created matrix hallucination, and resurrected him like Isis bringing Osiris back to life. She was herself resurrected in the second film, The Matrix: Reloaded, and she sacrificed herself somewhat thanklessly for the good of humankind in The Matrix: Revolutions. They wouldn’t have made it through the first movie without Trinity, let alone completing a series.
In Janelle Monáe’s musical tale, The ArchAndroid is not your average concept album, or even a typical album for that matter. The fact that it’s a combo of two Suites, a mega-suite, admits as much. Suite II boasts a range of moods and musical styles that could be released on its own. Suite III, while maintaining the quality of the other Suites, wouldn’t be my choice for a standalone release—largely because it’s really strange.
Both Suites present a series of surprising moments, as both begin with classical music overtures. Across Suite II’s heady mixture, the lyrics are concerned with dreams, freedom, light, and liberation. Here, Cindi Mayweather is awakened to the possibilities implicated by her love and passion. Her wish for a free society shines through in “Dance or Die”, a rhythmically tribal jam that sounds amazingly similar to Vanessa Williams’s “Freedom Dance (Get Free!)”. As underrated as I think Williams’s Comfort Zone album is, this is not a comparison I expected to make based on Monáe’s earlier work, her appearances on OutKast’s Idlewild soundtrack, and her cameo on B.o.B.‘s “The Kids”. The reggae-tinged rap of “Dance or Die” gives the song an unexpected and refreshing quality.
The next track, “Faster”, sways to a textured wall of guitar strumming while “Locked Inside” pays homage to Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, borrowing the drum roll from “Rock With You” to great effect. Two up-tempo rock joints, the anthemic “Cold War” and the blistering “Come Alive (The War of the Roses)”, join the James Brown workout of “Tight Rope” as Suite II’s ultimate highs. “Tight Rope” champions the virtues of emotional balance and self-reliance, advising us to “dance up on them haters”, never allowing them “take all of your dreams”. Big Boi’s nimble guest spot again obscures the division between Monáe and Mayweather as he introduces the jam with an offhand, “Monáe and Left Foot”, using her real name but referring to his own alter ego Sir Luscious Left Foot. Monáe also describes herself as “another flavor, somethin’ like a Terminator,” which makes sense from an android angle, but is confounding from the human side. In the movies, the Terminator was not a friend of the people.
Songs like Suite II’s tender “Sir Greendown” and the Pink Floyd-style “Oh, Maker”, along with Suite III’s “57821”, explicitly give voice to Monáe’s sci-fi story. Others, like the searing Prince-like “Mushrooms & Roses”, stay in character but are more suggestive of the plot. You can tell the overall story is there. All it needs is the exposition you’d get from the dialogue in a musical, something to tie the songs together. Videos for the songs will help, and I could easily see this as a stage production. Without narration, what remains is a smorgasbord of music, well-executed if not readily identifiable as having a common sound, and, most importantly, sincerely rendered.
Act III goes a bit further, calling Cindi Mayweather’s followers in “Neon Valley Street” and gathering them under the fellowship of her music (“Every note, every chord / I’ve arranged them for you and for me”). Vocally, Janelle Monáe experiments with a diverse array of deliveries, sometimes pure and unencumbered, at other times relying on special effects. In “Neon Valley Street”, her voice is perfection, offering a sense of peace through song and the love of the journey. The theme for Suite III is paradise, or “nirvana”, as it is referred to in “Say You’ll Go”, and Mayweather’s beau Anthony Greendown continues in prominence. Strange was my description of Suite III, as the proceedings bounce from the George Clinton-style funkiness of “Make the Bus”, featuring Of Montreal, to the playful longing of “Wondaland”, the kind of song that would’ve fit nicely on Kelis’s Wanderland album.
“Say You’ll Go” hits like a tribute to Stevie Wonder’s sound and vocal arrangement, which Monáe and company do so well over the course of both Suites. This leads to the wonderfully epic finale, the awkwardly titled “BaBopByeYa”. Over eight minutes, “BaBopByeYa” smoothly transitions through a set of movements that showcase melody, sublime vocals, and luscious strings.
Welcome to Metropolis, folks. The year is 2719, even though the music is being released in 2010. It’s funky and fantastic, futuristic but retro. It’s in a category of its own.