Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part I: The Chase

Janelle Monáe is an acclaimed and increasingly popular alterna-pop star with an art school pedigree and a penchant for genre-hopping and Octavia Butler. You may have heard her single "Tightrope" already, or known that her first album The ArchAndroid was released on Tuesday to much (deserved) acclaim. You may not have known that The ArchAndroid itself is actually part of a longer album cycle, called Metropolis, that Monáe has been working on since 2007. The album is marketed as parts II and III of what will ultimately be a four-part series; part I came in the form of a 2007 EP subtitled "The Chase." I have no idea when the final suite will be released, nor do I know whether it will be in the form of an EP or a longer album.

Monáe is an artist that you're really going to want to watch in the next few years. I could explain why, or I could link to this performance from The Late Show a few days ago, and let you decide for yourself. Before yesterday I had only heard (and enjoyed) her song "Tightrope," but as of today I think I am obsessed with this woman and her music. For now, I am reasonably confident that The ArchAndroid will be appearing near or at the top of my 2010 best list. As an album, it's as audacious and joyful of an experiment as any of Prince's great 80s albums, and Monáe's vocal abilities are almost supernaturally assured (doubly impressive given that this is her first LP--Prince was never this good starting out).

It's hard to find many artists in contemporary R&B who look to the album as a discrete artistic statement anymore--it would be even harder to find someone whose vision extends beyond one album, someone interested in multi-album conceptual epics. Monáe is pretty much alone on this front. Because of this, however, I consider the (also excellent) EP that preceded The ArchAndroid's release to be just as necessary listening as the album itself (just as I would imagine that the eventual release of Part IV will build naturally upon the themes of the first three chapters). Instead of sticking with Rockaliser's usual album track play-by-plays, I thought I'd instead divide this post into three (eventually four) parts, and evaluate the themes and inspirations behind this very, very good album one suite at a time. So today, I present a track-by-track analysis of Suite I, also known as "The Chase."

Note: A word about the original release--when Metropolis Suite I Of IV: The Chase came out in 2007, Monáe's initial idea was to release each suite online as its own EP. That plan was changed slightly when Diddy signed her to Bad Boy Records. The original independent EP was re-released on Bad Boy with two additional tracks, and her "debut" album became a collection of the next two planned EPs. I have to say, I have to give a lot of credit to Diddy for otherwise not really messing with Monáe's creative vision: this is defiantly weird pop, and as catchy as pop gets, but I imagine it could be a tough sell to a country that tends to be unnerved by pop progressivism, especially when it comes from black female artists.

1. March of the Wolfmasters
For our purposes, this is basically the EP's "intro" piece, and not much of a song. Monáe's narration explains the basic plot of the piece, which so far seems as follows: in the future, Cyndi Mayweather (otherwise known as Android 57821) falls in love, illegally, with a human named Anthony Greendown. Because emotional agency on the part of androids is no longer allowed, Mayweather is "scheduled for disassembly" and is chased by bounty hunters wielding "chainsaws and electro daggers." So that's the chase. Elsewhere, the cinematic backing music points to a trend that will reappear both on this EP and in the next couple suites.

2. Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!
It's a credit to Monáe's versatility that the first proper song on Suite I sounds, at first, like a Pixies song. Backed by energetically limber guitar and bass lines, Monáe sings from the point of view of the android on the run, living a lifetime of being either chased, threatened or mocked for being different. This is a very prevalent theme through the entire album cycle: though on its surface conceptual level this is a sci-fi epic involving androids in a dystopian future, Metropolis cuts subcutaneously at a number of emotional universals, among them a fear of loneliness and isolation, of how hard it can be to express oneself creatively without being thought of as "different." There's a lot of social commentary packed into lines "I'm a savior without a race," but it never seems hoary, because this is energetic, punky music aided by the tension and sweetness in Monáe's vocals. If only The Love Below started out with a song as good as this.

3. Many Moons
Following a seamless transition, "Many Moons" transfers the previous track's energy and forward momentum into a more macabre, cinematically expansive setting, with a keyboard hook that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Doors record (or Michael Jackson's "Thriller," come to think of it). The relentless drum track is indebted to "B.O.B.," but otherwise this song is entirely Monáe's own, and what really stands out this time is the sometimes chameleonic, dramatic nature of her vocals. There's a chorus of Monáes in this song, many of them playing different characters with opposing viewpoints, but the results are never cluttered, and in fact we have in this song a clarity in presentation and performance rarely heard in popular music. The track ends with a spoken-word free-association of American litanies from the last 20 years, followed by a lilting, drum-less denouement, all of it captivating listening.

4. Cybertronic Purgatory
The other half-song on this EP (which, considering it originally had only five songs, seems like one too many), "Cybertronic Purgatory" is a brief but beautiful ballad focused entirely on the interplay between a classical acoustic guitar and Monáe's operatics (I do mean "operatics"--she sounds like she's singing an aria). What she happens to be singing is beyond me, and I think it's at this point that I forgot I was trying to concentrate on the plot.

5. Sincerely, Jane.
As I said earlier, Monáe has a fascination with film music and seems to be an art film buff at heart (it's been suggested that Metropolis draws a lot of its iconography from the original Fritz Lang film, but there are obviously big differences, such as a lack of crypto-fascist anti-union agitprop). Here we get what is basically a big, brassy show number to end the first suite, laden with restless string parts and guttural horn blasts. The tone of the music matches the subject matter, which boils down thusly: "All your dreams go down the drain, girl/are we really living or just walking dead now?" The bleakness of Metropolis and the inhumanity it expresses toward its underclass will sound familiar to anyone who had lived during the Bush era, and so Suite I ends (basically) with a certain level of hopelessness.

6. Mr. President
This is the first of two bonus tracks added to the Bad Boy release. I'm going to guess that neither of them really belong to the Metropolis cycle itself, although they could, but "Mr. President" is very much in the style of socially-conscious R&B, particularly policy directives aimed toward our Commander-In-Chief, ranging from Stevie's "You Haven't Done Nothin'" to Big Boi's "Sumthin's Gotta Give." This is easy, soothing R&B ear candy, nothing nearly as challenging as anything on the actual EP, but while some of Monáe's opinions may seem banal, it's always nice to hear them voiced by a musician with actual opinions and ideas on the matter.

7. Smile
This is a cover of the Charlie Chaplin song that first appeared in The Great Dictator and was later recorded by Nat King Cole, and then more famously Michael Jackson and a bunch of other people. With nothing more than an electric guitar for backup, "Smile" rests entirely on the talents of its vocalist, who contributes a devastating version of the song that in its austerity reminded me of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." It doesn't have anything to do with any sort of sci-fi craziness, but it's a great vocalist doing a good job on a over-covered standard, so that makes it worth listening to at least once.

Tomorrow we'll talk about Suite II, or the first eleven tracks of The ArchAndroid. It would do you some good, maybe, to give those tracks a listen before I come back. You won't regret it.


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