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Janelle Monae’s ‘The Electric Lady’ Strives to Match Her Sci-Fi Ambitions and Pop Smarts

Janelle Monáe / Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Label: Bad Boy

Janelle Monáe’s ongoing multi-album Metropolis project is a post-millennial homage to Fritz Lang’s roaring twenties dystopia, and a framework for the fervently precocious futurist-R&B ideas of the Wondaland Arts Society, a production hive mind she built with fellow ATLiens Chuck Lightning, Nate “Rocket” Wonder, and Roman GianArthur. Its fictional heroine, the plucky and rebellious android Cindi Mayweather (#57821), is an apt alter-ego for Monáe, whose interviews frequently ascend into Universalist pronouncements, whose hair is permanently swept up into a ’50s pompadour, and whose overall bearing seems to involve warmly embracing and tacitly distancing herself from her audience all at once. At this point, she doesn’t need any conceits to convince us that she’s a strange, wonderful bird. But she’s sticking with the conceits anyway.

And so, even when her second Bad Boy full-length, The Electric Lady, occasionally stiffens and wobbles under the burden of equaling its masterful 2010 predecessor, The ArchAndroid, our ears and eyes remain affixed to this brilliantly realized persona. One narrative emerging from the latest avalanche of press is that she’s actively hunting for a Big Pop Hit now, resulting in talk of “working the album” until the masses finally get it. (Apparently, performing at presidential inauguration parties and Nobel Prize concerts doesn’t cut it.) Sadly, though, she’s just too lovably eccentric to distill her futurist fables into bite-size, Bruno Mars-ian crossover smashes.

To wit, the premise here — as delineated in liner notes penned by Max Stellings, “Vice Chancellor of the Palace of the Dogs Arts Asylum” — is that these songs document Mayweather’s life in Metropolis before she challenged the Great Divide (an authoritarian, NSA-like secret society) by taking on a human lover and escaping to Earth, a scenario first unveiled in Monáe’s dazzling 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). “After careful thought, I have decided to release this work — Suite IV and V of her Metropolis saga — in accordance with the Inspiration Information Act,” writes Stellings, nodding toward Shuggie Otis’ early-’70s psych-blues gem.

Additional notes pile on additional layers: “Givin’ Em What They Love,” a scratchy funk-rock duet with Prince, is “inspired by HiddenColors1&2 and the burning big house in Django Unchained.” The Solange-featuring title track is “inspired by Janelle Monáe’s Electric Lady series of paintings (see the Palace of Dogs Archives) and Jimi’s smile.” The Esperanza Spalding team-up “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” is “inspired by the jeep sequence in Carmen Jones (1954).”

As for her cohorts, producer GianArthur introduces each new suite by indulging his inner Quincy Jones, unleashing an elaborate orchestral fanfare that amounts to a dramatic lifting of the curtain; furthermore, a trio of interludes featuring Jocko Henderson-flavored radio-jack DJ Crash Crash (as played by Lightning) evokes a series of half-hour radio serials broadcast from WDRD (as in, “WDroid”). A delightful nod to ongoing Internet fantasies about Monáe’s sexuality arrives on “Our Favorite Fugitive,” when a phone-in caller claims, “Robot love is queer!” Crash Crash responds, “What I want to know is, how would you know it’s queer if you haven’t tried it?”

Monáe doesn’t disappoint her fans. Anyone who dreams she’s a black Morrissey weaving an Afro-Futurist allegory on cracking open the closet will treasure the girlish playfulness of “Givin’ Em What They Love” (“She followed me back to the lobby / Yeah she was looking at me for some undercover love”) and “Dance Apocalyptic” (“Smoking in the girls’ room / Kissing friends”). For those straining for a glimpse of confession, she offers “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” which both reveals “Cindi’s truest autobiographical feelings about her dangerous love affair with Anthony Greendown” and was apparently inspired by the end of a romance in Monáe ‘s life. (Or Mayweather’s life. It’s confusing.)

Yes, she’s a mischievous trickster, but a sweet-hearted one, too, modeled on Christian piety, George Clinton, and Charlie Chaplin’s cinematic Tramp. (On The Chase, she sang “Smile,” a standard from the Great American Songbook based on musical themes from Chaplin’s Modern Times.) She delivers her love prophecies with bravado — shakin’ and dap-dippin’ with on-the-one rhythm — and a mezzo-soprano voice that delivers both declamatory funk epiphanies (on “Q.U.E.E.N.”) and soaring operatic effects (on “Sally Ride,” which elevates the late female astronaut to iconic Major Tom status with a swelling Funkadelic flourish). She even spits hard rhymes like the second coming of Lauryn Hill on “Q.U.E.E.N.”: “They keep us underground, working hard for the greedy / But when it’s time to pay, they turn around and call us needy.”

The Wondaland Arts Society match all this dervish energy with funk-pop whirligigs. Sonically, The Electric Lady isn’t as expansive as The ArchAndroid, which referenced Elephant 6 twee-pop (via an Of Montreal cameo), Brazilian bossa nova, the Mellotron hallucinations of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the vocoder-filtered erotica of Air. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the band limiting their style quotes to ’70s and ’80s soul this time out: The bass rhythm of “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” is a dead ringer for Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” the guitar lines of “It’s Code” ring like Ernie Isley’s solo on the Isley Brothers’ “Voyage to Atlantis,” and “Ghetto Woman” could be an outtake from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Still, the arrangements simply aren’t as sharp as before, even as the ensemble uses ingenious tricks, like shifting rhythm mid-number on “Q.U.E.E.N.” and girding each song with string melodies that circle back to those suite overtures.

Meanwhile, Monáe’s lyrics often turn purplish. “I wanna scream and dream and throw a love parade / Is that okay?” she sings awkwardly on “Primetime,” a slow jam with Miguel that doesn’t quite achieve sensual frisson. “We were unbreakable / We were like rock & roll,” she muses over the pop-rock gospel of, yes, “We Were Rock & Roll,” failing to sell us on the hook.

Still, it is possible to love The Electric Lady, even if deep listening may be required to seal the deal. She certainly works hard for our devotion. By album closer “What an Experience,” she’s nearly breathless: “We party every night / And then we just walk off in the rain,” she sings amid ’80s-inspired synth-funk, which abruptly shifts into a lilting pop-reggae fusion. It could be an admission that this android is weathering an all-too-human sophomore slump, but cannily, she instead uses the moment to draw us closer: “Put your hand over my heart.”