Tuesday, September 10, 2013
We picked off last in 2010, in a series of posts reviewing Janelle Monáe's ambitious sci-fi concept cycle Metropolis, from her debut 2007 EP The Chase to 2010's The ArchAndroid (which contained the second and third suites in the cycle). Then Monáe released no new work for three years, barring the occasional guest voice on a Big Boi, fun., or Estelle number. She was supposedly at Wondaland Studios working on two albums, which she claimed last year would be released according to her "soul clock."
And now one of those albums, The Electric Lady, is finally here. Can she possibly live up to increased expectations as a sophomore artist? Does Lady build or expand upon the Metropolis mythos in addition to providing a solid listening experience? Did the artist capture this reviewer's heart once more? Spoiler alert: heck yes. I've listened to the album a half-dozen times now, and, while it's too early to compare this to The ArchAndroid, I already feel this album improves on the first's relistenable qualities (even if there are more skits this time around). It is a pleasure to be transported back to this world, and I will keep coming back to this record for a long, long time. My endorsement should be sufficient, but if you want more detail from a preeminent amateur Monáeologist, read on...*
1. Suite IV (Electric Overture)
The latest suite opens with now-customary orchestral pomp, except this time there's a more interesting rhythmic core. A "Peter Gunn"/Link Wray-type guitar line deeply rattles its way around increasingly sumptuous and bouncy string arrangements. The vocals, which arrive later, are filmic and set a scene, laying the melodic groundwork for what is to come. It's better (and shorter) than Ms. Monáe's previous suite openers, perhaps enough so that even my esteemed colleague will give it a shot.
2. Givin' Em What They Love (Feat. Prince)
That's definitely Prince on guitar at the beginning, his strums as unmistakable as his increasingly wizened reed of a voice. The Purple One, who pioneered so many potent genre-crosses in his own time, is a natural denizen of Metropolis. The percussion here is tribal and builds slowly, sort of like "The Cross." Prince's work is so good in part because he matches Monáe's vocal line at the exact same pitch--not often we hear him sing that high these days. The song builds to an ecstatic organ and guitar build, with Monáe's voice soaring as Prince's provides spiritual backing vox and trademark ripping (of the axe sort). The strings come back at the end. As in the previous suites, these recurring string arrangements will provide much of the connective tissue between songs.
3. Q.U.E.E.N. (Feat. Erykah Badu)
The album's first single, released on the Internet a few months back, did not light my fire at first. The video was certainly interesting, and introduced the less (literally) buttoned-up, more sexually liberated Monáe of 2013. I grew to like it more after several more listens. The keyboards are very Minneapolis, as indebted to the Time as they are to Prince, but sounded frenetic and unfocused until I paid careful attention a few dozen more times. There's a lot else going on here, not least is Erykah Badu's smoky vocal interlude toward the end of the piece. Then Monáe spits conscious rhymes, in a manner that went out of fashion years ago ("While you're sellin' dope/we'll be sellin' hope"), for what will be the first of several verses on record.
4. Electric Lady (Feat. Solange)
Holy smokes, is this one incredible song. Compared to either "Q.U.E.E.N." or "Dance Apocalyptic," this should be the single. Solange Knowles, the third R&B standard-bearer in a row, is yet another colorful addition to the album's psychedelic palette. If Ms. Knowles made music as energetic and bouncy as this all the time, I would buy copies of her records by the dozens. There's a hint of '90s R&B girl group to the song--think the best and most anthemic TLC or En Vogue. It has that sort of bounce and flavor, as well as requisite drum drops (nothing cooler than when drums drop out and bass keeps going) and chorus of melismatic backing vocals toward the end. Monáe raps again, describing general feminist good times. Solange's role, for the most part, is unobtrusive--Monáe is still the star. So hard not to get caught up in the spirit here. This is ultimate "blast your speakers and dance around your bedroom" music.
5. Good Morning Midnight
One thing that differentiates The Electric Lady from The ArchAndroid is the presence of track-long skits. And like many concept albums past, the framing device of this album is a radio station DJ who fields calls from eccentric listeners (most likely played by various Wondaland collaborators). DJ Crash Crash, "robotic hypnotic psychotic DJ," is broadcasting shout-outs from his listeners. One of them betrays serious prejudice against the robot race, which the DJ dismisses out of hand. Monáe's playful handling of racial prejudice (as displaced through the prism of futuristic robots) is what sticks out most here. There was a lot of that on the last album, but here it is even more overt.
6. PrimeTime (Feat. Miguel)
Borrowing the backing vocals from the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind"...why not? It makes a great deal of sense in the presence of Miguel, who borrows from rock, punk, and classic psychedelia for his sumptuous R&B in a manner not unlike Monáe (or, obviously, Prince). "PrimeTime" is the album's first proper ballad, but it does not cause the album to lag at all...in fact, this may be the most staggering song yet. It goes beyond mere babymaking music. Over a slow dance groove, Monáe sings a melody so pure and simple it seems ripped out of the Great American Songbook. This album shows how good she is at singing at high registers without being showy or obtrusive. Miguel matches her in the second verse, his syllables more playful, and yet aching. The song is lush, it's romantic, and there is not a single songwriting error to be found here. Props also to returning guitarist Kellindo Parker, nephew of Maceo, who contributes some great, Prince-like guitar work at the end.
7. We Were Rock & Roll
Seven songs in and the album is yet to slow down. A loose and limber groove propels this track into classic anguished soul territory (I was reminded a bit of one of my musical heroes, Gil Scott-Heron). The song isn't exactly a tribute to rock music, but it has fiery guitar at points, and the subject matter is certainly stereotypical (we are young, on the run, no one understands us, etc.). The song is girded by a descending guitar figure and a syncopated hi-hat rhythm not too far from James Brown at his simplest, along with some hand claps and organ stabs, but otherwise keeps it pretty simple. Monáe's voice is once again the focal point of our attentions, which really pays off when a choir of backing vocals joins up with her to sing "it's alright." Kellindo Parker throws out some more excellent guitar parts here.
8. The Chrome Shoppe
DJ Crash Crash returns and announces something called the "Cyberfreak Festival." Some robotic sorority girls promise a "bouncing electro-booty contest" which is a good description for this album's sound. Then they announce the next song and single, "Dance Apocalyptic." I have a historically low threshold when it comes to rap skits but these brief snippets do have Monáe's authorial eccentricity stamped all over them, which to me overcomes their non-musical, marking-time aspects.
9. Dance Apocalyptic
Like "Q.U.E.E.N.," I was not taken by second single "Dance Apocalyptic" at first. The parallels to "Tightrope" were obvious, and this version sounded like the earlier song's brief uke part extended to a punk-ska BPM that never really took off anywhere different or unexpected. The groove here still isn't my favorite, but I've warmed to the message, Monáe's vocals, and most importantly, the song's amazingly upbeat vibe. Elsewhere, though, the song is a bit too sugary and retro, and again, it doesn't go to those magical unexpected places where genre is smashed into millions of irrelevant bits. On one level it is still a great listen, and far from a slog, but at another level it is Janelle-by-numbers. As far as nonsense refrains go, "Smash, smash/bang, bang/don't stop/galang-alang-alang" is merely okay.
10. Look Into My Eyes
Side 4 of Metropolis comes to a close, and after a nine-song sprint, this is the cooling session. Bits of the melody from the opening suite appear again, wedded to stately flamenco guitar and a lush tango atmosphere. The effect is again very, very romantic, to an almost narcotic degree. Monáe's collaborators, Deep Cotton, have gotten even better at arranging strings this time around. If there is any song this resembles, it is Archandroid's "BaBopByeYa" (splashed with a bit of "Sir Greendown") but while that song was lengthy and almost punishing at times, the airy "Look Into My Eyes" leaves as quickly as it appears. This song and many others on the first side really illustrate how much more of an individual sound Monáe has developed in the last three years--there are moments here when you can tell, even if she was not singing, that this is a Monáe-type jazz progression or modulation. Her songwriting tricks, rather than sounding borrowed or transmuted from the best of Prince, Stevie, and Michael, are starting to sound simply like Janelle. Although not entirely, as we will see in the next suite.
It occurs to me that I have yet to discuss much of the album's storyline (narrative in concept albums has always been a big blind spot for me). Tune in next time as I delve more deeply into the plight of Cyndi Mayweather with the ruminative, equally staggering fifth suite.
PREVIOUSLY IN METROPOLIS:
Suite I (The Chase)
*no star rating needed**
**no explanation needed for lack of star rating