Label: Bad Boy Entertainment
The opening moments of Janelle Monáe’s curiously named first LP, The ArchAndroid, are the sounds of hushed applause giving way to “Suite II Overture.” Strings undulate gracefully until building horns and an ominous march take over. This is when the pompadour-sporting neo-soul wunderkind makes it awfully clear that the gloves are off – everything she attempted on her expert debut is here, but supplemented by new ideas and attempted in grander form. Instead of just opening with an establishing monologue as on EP Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase Monáe begins with a full-blown (and particularly dynamic) overture, complete with strings, horns, choral elements and classical percussion. She follows with a gambit of genre waypoints and styles performed by her and big-name guests; sweaty funk, disco bass lines, ’60s era folk, contemporary R&B, hip-hop, spoken word, twitchy freak-rock and psychedelic ballads. And she continues to weave the allegorical story of her Metropolis saga through it all, splitting ArchAndroid into two more thematic suites. That much ambition seems like the recipe for a bloated musical disaster and without Monáe’s talents it probably would be. Instead it’s one of those most-rare contemporary classics; a concept album that not only avoids the pitfalls of overly narrow focus, but also toppling under the weight of its own monumental vision – all with downright spectacular results.
As Suite II and III of the four Monáe envisioned creating in musical homage to the silent film Metropolis, The ArchAndroid again follows the tribulations of android Cindi Mayweather and the star-crossed love she kindles with the human Anthony Greendown. In Suite I she escapes bloodthirsty assassins for violating the rules governing androids. ArchAndroid finds Mayweather taking a bittersweet moment to rest in hiding, reconciling insurmountable distance with the love she has for Greendown. By the end of Suite III Monáe’s android counterpart realizes her destiny: return to Metropolis and liberate her persecuted android brethren.
Of course this is all just admirable compositional detail. In reality, Monáe’s new tracks invoke themes that fit this framing story, accomplishing more through mood and repeated motifs than explicit storytelling. And these 18 tracks are all worthy tunes without the concept to tie them together. She’s an artist bursting with ideas – fortunately Bad Boy Records and the producers behind the scenes had the foresight to let Monáe unleash her muse. Not that she throws around all that quirk and creativity around without restraint. Start to finish – though formidable at some 70 minutes – ArchAndroid follows a path; the vector changes abruptly throughout but makes the meandering yield a bounty of novel moments, even within the same song. Paralleling the artwork on her EP and Android, Monáe’s music is no longer the workhorse sounds of a broken soul on the run. Now it’s shimmering and dreamy – the Arch Android is arriving in all of her splendor and Monáe is making damn sure we all know it. She takes on various voices (Mayweather, Greendown, robotic harmony vocals) suiting different styles and also representing the characters in her story. Yet holding everything together are consistent flourishes invoking Metropolis’ futuristic world – spacey keys and altered vocals mix with nods to psychedelic Neon Valley Street (“Oh Maker tell me did you know/ this love would burn so yellow?/ Becoming orange and in its time explode from gray to black then bloody white?“).
Standouts cuts – the soulful exuberance of “Tightrope” and arty club banger “Cold War” – feel right at home next to the more challenging (the backwards vocals of “Neon Gumbo”, the hazy “Mushrooms & Roses”). Monáe’s unique sensibilities are ever-present yet she brings the best out in her guests as well. “Dance or Die” is one of the more contagious tracks Saul Williams has ever recorded and its dark dubstep tones suit his spoken-word delivery; “Make the Bus” is a touch out of place but Of Montreal avoids the ill-conceived and rambling tangents Kevin Barnes finds so attractive. Surely Monáe had something to do with that.
Even though ArchAndroid often sounds like a funky spaceship ride into the future it also frames a contemporary voice at its finest. Like Parliament before her, Monáe envisions a world where class and economics play nicer with each other, and her robotic musical persona is just a memorable means to deliver that message along with all the fun. Janelle Monáe has more style than most, with more vocal and songwriting talent to match. If the evolution between her EP and The ArchAndroid is telling, Suite IV of Metropolis will be an even stronger conclusion than anyone had hoped. If not, The ArchAndroid is still a career-defining performance and is deserving of all the accolades it and Cindy Mayweather’s hyper-creative brainchild are sure to receive.
by Michael Merline