Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Look At Janelle Monáe's Metropolis Cycle, Part 3: The ArchAndroid (Part 2)

Sorry about the confusing title. We pick up at Suite III, which has significantly fewer songs (seven as opposed to eleven) and a vibe much more conducive towards chillin'.

1. Suite III Overture
Suite III begins where Suite II left off, beginning with a piano-driven callback to the strings at the end of Suite II closer "Mushrooms & Roses." Like the last overture, this is (slightly more syrupy) film music, featuring the same ghost-in-the-transistor voices at the beginning of The Archandroid (good luck telling what they're saying). The strings are as swooning as ever, for sure, but like its predecessor, this is mostly setup in the larger scheme.

2. Neon Valley Street
The most traditional R&B track, if you'll allow me to be slightly reductive. More heavy (but still quite pretty) string parts, with Monáe taking vocal command of the track just as the bass groove kicks in. More than other songs on this album, "Neon Valley Street" suggests an indebtedness to Lauryn Hill, especially in the way it marries old-school easybeat soul with contemporary hip-hop. The operative word for the vibe here is "sedate." BUT, I should add, there's another cool if brief rap from Monáe that reminded me of Erykah Badu's spaced, easygoing verses.

3. Make The Bus (Feat. Of Montreal)
You'll be forgiven for wondering if The ArchAndroid hadn't suddenly been hijacked by Kevin Barnes and Co., as this is probably the most marked stylistic departure in an album brimming with genre crosses. Whether or not you like this song depends entirely on whether or not you like most of Of Montreal's album tracks, and since I've always been a big fan, the transition was easier for me (can't imagine what a normal hip-hop head would think, though). Monáe claims that she and Kevin Barnes trade off singing lines, and maybe it's because my ears aren't what they once were, but I only hear Barnes for the most part. All of this is a long way of saying that "Make The Bus" is pleasant to listen to and an interesting sequential gambit, but if you were to drop this on an Of Montreal album, you wouldn't have to change a thing.

4. Wondaland
My nomination for single #3. There's a pretty melody that's immediately apparent underneath the layers of hazed synths and bouncy bass, and that plus the disco beat make this already engaging listening. But it's Monáe's vocals, as usual, that elevate this to the level of conceptual and musical brilliance. "Wondaland" has one of her most effective chameleonic performances, affecting some sort of pixie-ish, fairy queen register that I swear is somehow not cloying at all. All of this bounces by prettily, until the chorus, where the voices and instruments switch from spacey to bassy in perfect tandem--it's difficult to explain the mood-shift that goes on, so you'll have to listen to it for yourself. The title, by the way, refers to Monáe's record label and arts collective the Wondaland Arts Society, but the song would feel utopian even without that as a subject matter. But does "Wondaland" have any function within the larger Metropolis narrative? I'll admit that I have really, really lost the plot at this point.

5. 57821 (Feat. Deep Cotton)
How many stylistic shifts can one album make before it starts to get boring? The answer: probably at around the same time said album starts mining Fairport Convention territory. Or at least that's what I think is happening here. Monáe's labelmates Deep Cotton get a chance to harmonize over some "Scarborough Faire"-like Renaissance dramatism, and if you're like me you probably weren't predisposed to that kind of music to begin with. I don't deny the pretty harmonies, and unlike "Make The Bus," this song shows that Monáe can be a background player without relinquishing the spotlight completely. "57821" is kind of long, though. It's here that The ArchAndroid starts taking a turn for the sleepy.

6. Say You'll Go
No idea how to explain this one: it's like a Broadway melody played over a lugubrious, barely-there groove, which features a quotation of Claude Debussy's piano piece "Clair de Lune," which was itself inspired by Paul Verlaine's poem. There's a chance that the Verlaine connection is relevant: it fits in with the romantic vibe of Suite III and matches the tone (if not the plot) of the lyrics. We get a nice reprise from the ghost voices as well. Man, that last minute: Debussy could really crank out a tune, right? So now Monáe can drop "classical" from her genre-geared Punnett Square.

7. BaBopByeYa
Monáe's well-established love for film music takes an appropriately avant-garde turn. "BaBopByeYa" by itself is a discrete and highly engaging symphony of sorts, with Monáe starting out in torch song mode and graduating into something more whispery and percussive. There's a lot of plot to wrap up here, and I'm not sure Monáe does that successfully, but at least it manages to fit the "throw in the kitchen sink" tone of the orchestration. Pay attention to the vocals at the end: Monáe really hits it out of the park, and in an alternate universe I could imagine her being a big Broadway star. It's a good thing for all of us that she took a more interesting route.

We will see when or if Suite IV eventually comes out, or whether The ArchAndroid's success could yield a new generation of sci-fi-oriented hip-hoppers. For now, let's just applaud her considerable talent, drive and ambition. Rarely is it this apparent that we have a classic artist in the making. Even if you aren't the type to buy your albums anymore, you should support her.


  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful write-up of Monae's work -- I found you by searching for "crimson & closer" "mushrooms & roses" because I heard the similarities too, and just spent half an hour reading your writings. THANKS!

  2. Thanks for the read! Feel free to link to your friends/interested parties.