Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part 2: The ArchAndroid (Part I)

The saga continues. I will note that The ArchAndroid comes with liner notes that feature a list of influences and inspirations for each track, but I don't have those notes on me so I'm going into this blind.

1. Suite II Overture
Unlike the beginning of the "Chase Suite," Suite II starts out with a proper orchestral overture. Utilizing a motif that resembles the most famous part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (aka the Countdown With Keith Olbermann theme), this overture is short but heavy on theatrics and changing moods. It ends with a chorus of ghostly voices, singing as if stuck in an old transistor radio--and then we're immediately transported elsewhere.

2. Dance Or Die (Feat. Saul Williams)Monáe is joined by Niggy Tardust himself for this one, the first of four high-profile guest appearances on the album, and his presence is welcomed. But surprisingly, it's Monáe who does the majority of the spitting on this first track, and Williams is basically relegated to the background, offering his own take on futuristic word association games first heard in "Many Moons." Monáe is a good rapper, and each individual bar, clipped to the length of the song's bass line, is strong, but doesn't necessarily make me want to hear more of her rapping, at least at the expense of her singing.

3. Faster
The album really starts taking off here, as a motif jacked from the breakdown in "Dance Or Die" turns into an orgy of splayed electric guitar and DJ scratches, which then transforms into a go-go, hyperfast take on the Great American Songbook. This is where we first hear Monáe's memorable line "shake it like a schizo," but what really kills me is the way she intones "faster, faster I should run," and the way that guitar part sort of bubbles around her.

4. Locked Inside
Monáe sings about being in an abusive (android-human?) relationship, "where the man is always right." Another example of Monáe counterpointing Metropolis' futuristic, dystopian setting with tales of too-similar woe and injustice taking place in modern America. The track itself is the drum intro from Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," I believe, married to a melody that would have sounded perfectly at home in Songs In The Key Of Life. Big, ringing jazz chords characterize this track, and the "Oh how, oh how I need you baby" part is a killer example of Monáe's epic but not overpowering method of overdubbing vocals. The ending is even kind of Steely Dan.

5. Sir Greendown
"Sir Greendown" is presumably meant to refer to Anthony Greendown, the human male Cyndi Mayweather fell in love with at the beginning of this saga. While the first three songs (plus the intro) sound basically of a piece, easily flowing into one another, "Sir Greendown" is more of a short, ponderous break in the action. I don't know what to call music like this--it definitely has the feeling of an old standard, with Monáe's vocals are comparatively dialed down. Deserves the adjective "lilting," but among the rest of the tracks on Suite II, this sounds like it could be on the slower, more romantic Suite III.

6. Cold WarMonáe must really love the drum track in "B.O.B." (who doesn't?) because it shows up again here, anchoring a slab of apocalyptic electro-punk perfection. That's right, I said perfection, because this is indeed a perfect, immediate classic, and an obvious choice to go to for a second single after "Tightrope." There's something so universally tense and expansive about the melody here and the way Monáe belts out the phrase "this is a cold war/you better know what you're fighting for," singing it slightly different and at a different, higher register each time, it feels like. I find there are two extra-killer parts of this song: a) the way Monáe sings the part "I'm trying to find my peace/I was led to believe there's something wrong with me," and b) the suitably dramatic guitar solo, and it's here that I should point out that Monáe's regular guitarist Kellindo Parker has major chops, and (given that he doesn't have much competition that I'm aware of) he could become known, if they keep up his profile, as the true master of the Moog guitar.

7. Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi)
Will I ever tire of writing about Big Boi? Don't think so. He's more of a concentrated presence here than Saul Williams, if you couldn't have already guessed that. But Big's verse isn't particularly special, as he knows that the big draw here is, as always, Monáe and her titanically-assured vocal stylings. "Tightrope" is the big single, and deserves to bigger than it is (it even has its own dance). Me, I love the ukulele-and-strings bit toward the end the most, and I wish that part would go on forever. The whole thing is one great, Outkastian groove-fest, and it's not a surprise that the two tracks most indebted to Outkast will probably end up being the two big singles. In my world, this is starmaking stuff.

8. Neon Gumbo
This number is Monáe's earlier song "Many Moons" (which I wrote about here), specifically the last 1:30 of that track played backwards. So this is a song that belongs in the category of, like, "Dreams Reoccurring" or the Stone Roses' "Don't Stop," which is to say, surprisingly compelling despite the fact that it's another song played backwards. No idea how this reprise fits into the narrative of Metropolis, but I lost that map a long time ago.

9. Oh, Maker
I read someone online compare this song to a Pink Floyd number, which I can sort of see, as "Oh, Maker" is otherwise completely devoid of convenient vantage points. Beginning with a repetitive but flexible guitar figure, the song morphs into a showcase for Monáe's deft vocalizations (yet another one), and it's hard not to find the way she intones "so much hurt/in this earth" completely killer. It definitely has the feeling of a classic soul number, but there's a ghostly, futuristic quality to the proceedings--probably the only reason why invocations of Pink Floyd even begin to make sense.

10. Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)
The album's most Dead Kennedys-esque song, if you consider that an endorsement. A diabolical, oppressive cabaret-punk burner, "Come Alive" is a lot about the dramatic, swoopingly scratchy guitars but also about Monáe's insane ululations, including a high-pitched shriek between 2:15 and 2:35 that sounds outside the realm of possibility for the human voice. Monáe is a great singer, rapper, and screamer--put that on top of her dancing and songwriting skills, you have what is, at the minimum, an insane quintuple-threat.

11. Mushrooms & RosesI've somehow gone this far without mentioning Prince once, and this song finally provides a perfect outlet to do so. With underwater vocals married to a melody not entirely unlike "Crimson & Clover" (which, you'll remember, Prince happened to record a solo-laden cover of), itself married to more of those cinematic strings, "Mushrooms & Roses" provides a perfect sense of (temporary) finality. It's a slow, creepingly cinematic pop number at first, and when the guitars come in the result is very Gold Experience. Monáe's voice is more unrecognizable here than usual, due to the aforementioned phased vocals, but somehow, the emotion still comes through, switching from a spoken-word part to crooning "Little Mary, Mary, and she's crazy about me." It's one of five specific points of "Mushrooms & Roses" that absolutely kill, and who knows, you might find an additional few others. "Mushrooms & Roses" could easily be dropped into Sign O' The Times, and no one would bat an eye.




  1. Do the liner notes list samples/interpolations? I'd be curious to see them all, but that guitar in "Faster" sounds like a Fela Kuti song. I can't put my finger on it though, and it's bugging the hell out of me.

  2. Monáe includes a list of "inspirations" for each track, most of them non-musical. She does list "Fela Kuti's cigarettes" as an influence on the previous track "Dance Or Die" (which is where the guitar figure for "Faster" first shows up, at 1:54), so who knows what that means, but you're right: the first time I heard "Faster," I thought the same thing, that it was totally vintage afrobeat.