It’s difficult not to feel a little underwhelmed by The Eephus.
Few in the music community would disagree that Janelle Monae is a certified #BOSS. In just over five years, she has emerged as one of R&B’s most fearless and flawless visionaries, seamlessly melding Afro-future funk with science-fiction imagery and socially progressive messages. It was only a matter of time before Monae would step beyond the designation of wunderkind and set out to establish her own intellectual entertainment empire.
Enter the Wondaland Arts Collective, Monae’s cadre of like-minded individuals with something to say. The problem with their debut The Eephus is that the something in question is somewhat unclear. Monae has made a career out of defying convention and carving out a truly unique artistic vision. In an oversexed R&B culture, she dares to outfit herself completely in black tie tuxedos. When lyricism has reached an all-time low, Monae still reaches for genuine sublimation, combining astronauts, German pre-war cinema and Blaxploitation finesse into a miraculously all-encompassing philosophy. Strange then, that an EP named for the baseball pitch intended to disorient and change the game should be the most sonically conventional thing to which she’s ever affixed her stamp.
The best track here is easily Monae’s own “Yoga.” At first listen, the track’s subwoofer bass and hand-clapping build-up could have belonged to anyone from Rihanna to Tinashe, but Monae clearly has deeper intentions. The song becomes an ode to balance, sex a metaphor for equilibrium, body movement as a statement of independence. Monae is taking back the agency robbed of so many inherently sexual artists, and that playful double entendre elevates “Yoga” far above standard radio dreck.
Sadly, the rest of The Eephus doesn’t bear the stamp of outlandish originality that one expects from Monae’s coterie. It’s not that the music on The Eephus is of poor quality – far from it, in fact. The production is immaculate, the vocals bright and crisp, the tunes hummable and catchy. The problem is that it sounds like anyone could have produced it. R&B smoothie Jidenna is essentially the star of the show, appearing on three tracks including his own spotlight turn on “Classic Man.” Boasting Jidenna’s impeccable fashion sense and chivalry, as well as sporting a strangely familiar synth beat, “Classic Man” is essentially the male “Fancy.” To its credit, it’s much better than “Fancy,” but the most genuinely exciting moment comes from Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse. “Let’s Get Caught,” attributed to Wondaland hype men Deep Cotton, is a shameless Prince pastiche that’s quite fun if not particularly revolutionary. Roman GianArthur, another autotuned crooner, turns out a bland, harmless pop number on “iKnow,” and the sensuous St. Beauty turns “Going Nowhere” into a sexy, if somewhat forgettable, slow jam.
Perhaps I’m being unfair – there is, after all, only one Janelle Monae. But it’s difficult not to feel a little underwhelmed by The Eephus. Monae has done an exemplary job of providing social media promotion for this release for the last six months, but after the hype, it doesn’t feel like the musical leap forward that was promised. For the first time, it seems that Monae and her collective are acquiescing to current trends, rather than boldly defying them.