Taking on an alter ego is nothing new in popular music. Eminem’s Slim Shady, arguably being the most recent high profile example (although this was an alter ego’s alter ego). Even the science fiction alter ego has been done, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust the obvious reference point here for all things astral related. Musicians often state that taking on another persona allows them the freedom and space (no pun intended here) to write, sing and perform in a way they can’t do, or don’t want to, under their own moniker.
Whether this is true of Janelle Monáe is not clear. What is not in doubt is that Monáe introduced her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather an otherworldly Android, to the world on a couple of early EPs before fully unleashing her as the chief protagonist of her debut LP, The Archandroid. That album received critical acclaim for its updating of black psychedelic rock and funk, a lineage that runs from Funkadelic, Parliament and Sly & the Family Stone, through Prince and up to OutKast. However, such acclaim didn’t translate into sales (more of an issue to her label than Monáe, I would imagine).
On The Electric Lady, Cindi returns. And girl, she’s back with a huge sound and plenty to say about what’s going on at planet Earth. There’s no doubt that this is a politically charged album. With themes of black empowerment, gender politics and (female) sexuality wrapped up in a rock, funk, psychedelic and R&B sonic blast, The Electric Lady will reverberate around your body and mind hours for after listening.
There are tracks dedicated to Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American actress to be nominated for an Oscar, Sally Ride the first American women (and still youngest American) to travel to space, nods to Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix and, most intriguingly, subliminal, yet noticeable, references to gay love affairs. While it’s absurd that this should be worthy of comment in 2013, Monáe (or is it Cindi Mayweather?) is to be applauded for being able to include such explicit references without them distracting from or becoming the focal point of, The Electric Lady.
All this points to an incredibly brilliant and intelligent songwriter who how has much to say about the world we live in, and she lives above, forever looking down on us earthlings, fixing her gaze on the inequalities of life below.
In this respect then, there’s another way to look at Monáe’s alter ego. Cindi remains an outsider, a stranger, not of this earth. Someone, therefore, who can identify with those who are also fighting for respect, recognition and understanding for who they are and who they want to be. Abuse, oppress, discriminate, she seems to be saying, and I’ll see you. And I’ll challenge you. Perhaps I’m reading too much, or even something that isn’t even isn’t there, into oblique lyrical content into lines like this:
“She said, “Can you tell me where the party’s at? / She followed me back to the lobby / Yeah, she was looking at me for some undercover love.” (“Givin’ Em What They Love”)
“Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? / Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?” (“Q.U.E.E.N.”)
“Just wake up, Mary / Have you heard the news? / Oh, just wake up, Mary / You got the right to choose.” (“Sally Ride”)
These sentiments appear most explicity on the interlude track. The interludes on The Electric Lady are an integral part of the album and brilliantly realised. There’s “Our Favourite Fugitive”, where a caller to the radio show goes into meltdown shouting “Robot love is queer”. This brings the retort from the host “How would you know its queer if you haven’t tried it?”
It’s difficult not to read an allegory here between the droid/robot outsider love and societies’ still outdated response to gay sex and relationships.
As with The Archandroid, Monáe refuses to wear a musical straightjacket. The Electric Lady fairly bounces between styles and shifts in tempo with opener “Suite IV Electric Overture” coming on like some bastard love child of Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin (western-fi, sci-west any one?). Then, it segues into the absolutely monstrous track “Givin’ Em What They Love”, the collaboration with Prince.
A collaboration it most certainly is. This is no Prince take over, as is clear when he exits the song allowing Monáe to close it out. This is heavy funk rock, a throwback to the height of Prince’s powers, a thumping song that at once makes you yearn for Prince while you realise that with Monáe, we are in the presence of a suburb musician in control of her own destiny. This is a track that has to be heard by everyone, at least once in their lifetime!
“Q.U.E.E.N.” is a contemporary uptake on the Parliament-Funkadelic sound complete with squelchy keys and another understated, but brilliant performance, this time it’s Erykah Badu, culminating in a breathtaking last verse that fairly nails 21st century feminism. “Ghetto Woman”, on the other hand, is Monáe’s tribute to Stevie Wonder, clearly taking on his keyboard and bass sound and even appropriating his singing style. With anyone else this might set off alarms, but with Monáe you know she knows her history, and so the song becomes both tribute but also Monáe’s, as she completely owns it.
“Dance Apocalyptic” is the album’s “Tightrope” — a great get up and dance song. “Sally Ride” is lush ’70s Minnie Ripperton soul and a fitting and touching requiem to Ride, who died last year. Following this is “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”, which features Esperanza Spalding and shows the vocal dexterity Monáe possesses. This song is another splice of pure ’70s sunshine psychedelic soul.
These are just a few highlights on a stellar (pun intended!) album. Whether the political content and the eclectic mix of styles and tempos will result in big sales of the album remains to be seen. But to be honest, if it doesn’t, it says more about our listening habits than about Janelle Monáe. Free of genre restrictions, this is an important album by an important artist. In the days of bland mainstream music, Janelle Monáe stands as a symbol for women and ‘outsiders’ everywhere. Here is a woman who won’t seemingly play the game that the music industry want her to.
I’m left with the overriding feeling that Monáe is acutely aware of her history, and it’s a history to be understood, respected, re-appropriated and re-purposed. But this is never merely pastiche, Monáe takes her history and updates it, makes it relevant and vital for today. This is smart, thought-provoking music. And it will make you want to dance.