- Janelle Monáe The ArchAndroid Atlantic Records, May 18 2010.
- This album is for: People looking for big, symphonic pop that assimilates 60 years of pop music into its sound. Fans of OutKast’s and Danger Mouse’s contemporary-through-heterogeneous-style technique. People who listened to The Adventures of Bobby Ray and wanted something more daring.
- This album is not for: Those with a heart of stone. Old men who kick dogs.
- Key tracks: Every single one.
I know precious little about Janelle Monáe. In fact, the first thing I ever heard that she was a part of was her guest spot on B.o.B’s new album, “Kids.” Turs out that I didn’t need to know much about her, the first track on her debut album kicked down the door to my mind. Her music says everything you need to know.
The music speaks for itself because it’s unbelievably fucking good. It helps that on this album, Monáe sounds like the most competent singer on the face of the planet. The vocal styles that she pulls on the album touch on a lot of musical traditions: ’50’s style crooner, Joan Baez-like soulful folk, some rapping, smooth R&B, and on “Come Alive” a truly chilling, balls out performance that recalls Screaming Jay Hawkins.
That miscegenation dominates the record. It rings true to me as a listener, because we live in an age where almost every record that’s ever been recorded is available, in some form, on the internet. We’re no longer victims of an age where music expires when a record goes out of print. This music could only be made now. It’s an album that rejects all style labels. Rhapsody lists Monáe as “Neo-Soul” and that’s true, but it only tells part of the story. She’s making music that is all her own, but incorporates almost the entire history of pop music into her sound.
I should also make clear that she’s not doing this through sampling. Words like these have been written about Girl Talk, for example, but his use of pop music is much cruder than what’s going on in this record. She’s not imitating style, but suggesting it. I was going to write about the different styles that I heard in the record, but they are so numerous, and so smart, that I’m going to go track-by-track through the album and write what I hear:
Suite II Overture: These instrumental overtures don’t necessarily represent the sound of the record, but this first one in particular shows the scope and drama that the album is dealing with. One of the thing that I was impressed by throughout the album is the sensitivity to musical drama. Every track, and even the placement of tracks within the album, contains a beautifully structured dramatic arc. It’s also a very smart instrumental track. Often, on albums of all styles, there might be an “orchestral” track that inevitably bores me, because it’s not a particularly interesting use of the instruments or texture. That’s not true of this album.
Dance or Die: The album really gets cooking with this track, which has an upbeat, funky beat, and features Monáe semi-rapping. Also features Saul Williams.
Faster: This song continues the refrain and beat from Dance or Die, but breaks into a pop song that reminds me a little bit of ’50s and ’60’s girl-group pop. As with many of the songs on this album, I’m as impressed by what she didn’t do as with what she did do. You can hear the outline of a more conventional song in this track, but the production throws everything into it. It’s almost like Beyonce’s neo-Motown sound in “Single Ladies,” but more badass, more funky, and with more energy.
Locked Inside: This track sounds like the music that Stevie Wonder would be making if he was alive and recording today (I know he is, but let’s pretend he isn’t). It features a very Stevie vocal line and chord progression. Another nice touch is the Santana-like guitar solo that also reminds me of Stevie’s guitar solo on “Contusion” off of Songs in the Key of Life.
Sir Greendown: There’s some sly musical borrowing here: the drum and guitar pattern are stolen and slowed down from “Be My Baby.”
Cold War: This is a high-octane song that shows the influence of OutKast. It hits that same sweet spot as “Hey Ya!” or “Bombs Over Baghdad,” manic, joyous, apocalyptic pop music. Also, the guitar outtro could be interpreted as a reference to Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Supreme vocal chops on display.
Tightrope: This funky number channels James Brown all the way. The “tightrope” refrain is a classic funk construction, and it’s got some nice brass solos.
Neon Gumbo: Wordless transition track.
Oh, Maker: When this track started, it knocked me back on my ass. I thought I had a handle on the musical styles that Monáe was working with, but this track begins with a folky guitar section, and Monáe singing like Joan Baez. This song is structured as a dialogue between that husky folk and a soaring R&B ballad.
Come Alive: This song is rooted in the creepy fun of Psychobilly, recalling acts like Screaming Jay Hawkins, Oingo Boingo, and Reverend Horton Heat. Monáe’s pipes are off the charts. Ridiculously good.
Mushrooms & Roses: This is the track where Monáe puts in her interpretation of psychedelic rock. It opens with a sweet string intro (btw, I’m also grateful that she used real musicians. The album credits can be seen on Wikipedia, and there were a fuckton of people who worked on this album). She sings with a vocal processing that recalls “Crimson and Clover.” This track is interesting because it’s the first so far that is pretty much a rock song. There’s even a Lynyrd Skynyrd sound alike guitar solo.
Suite III Overture: This instrumental continues a theme developed in “Mushrooms & Roses.” I really dig the musical coherence of the album. Themes recur, instruments that were prominent on one track pop up in others. This is an album that’s meant to be listened to as an album.
Neon Valley Street: A nice R&B song with vaguely Sinatraesque orchestral support.
Make the Bus: And now Monáe does Prince. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s kind of a weird hybrid between Prince and David Bowie.
Wondaland: This track reminds me a lot of Gorillaz, specifically the bubblegum funk on tracks like “19-2000” and many on Plastic Beach. It also ends with a faux-churchy Hallelujah.
57821: This track brings back the quiet modal folk of Simon and Garfunkel.
Say You’ll Go: This is another song that reminds me of Stevie Wonder. The ending samples and incorporates Debussy’s “Claire de Lune.”
BaBopBye Ya: This song is great, and also perfect to end the album. It the the jazzy, Sinatraesque, Great American Songbook. The music of that period was the original mixture of pop culture, combining African-descended Jazz with European art song. In a musical landscape where tons of people make money with not-very-clever covers of the classics (see Josh Groban, Rod Stewart, anyone), it’s refreshing to hear someone working with those styles without making them a museum piece.