Janelle Monae's full-length debut, The ArchAndroid, is what it sounds like when imagination and pure willpower are turned loose in a studio. Her sprawling, loopy collection is brimming with confidence, smashing together sounds that seem at odds, but ultimately make The ArchAndroid essential listening.
Seemingly indifferent to the whims of Top 40 radio or any other tastemaking outlet, Monae's stylistic synthesis and breakneck pacing on these 18 songs take your breath away on the first listen; it's also what brings you back for repeated journeys.
She's turning critical heads across the country, just in time for her stint as an opening act for Erykah Badu and, later this summer, as part of the rejuvenated Lilith Fair. Monae opens Badu's hometown show at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Grand Prairie's Verizon Theatre. Do not arrive late and miss Monae.
Billed as the middle section of a four-part, conceptual series, The ArchAndroid reaches back to the freak-funk of George Clinton, Prince's bracingly sensual stylings and incorporates a smidge of Badu's Earth-mother mojo -- all while grooving underneath a black light borrowed from OutKast.
Indeed, part of the fun of unpacking The ArchAndroid comes in spotting the influences -- Locked Inside, for example, flirts with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Santana. But it also reflects Monae's genre-blind vision.
"I'm a lover of great music, I never have tried to make a specific sound, or be different just to be different," Monae told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. "Whether it's psychedelia, classical, hip hop, it's all music, and it's either good or bad. I'm a part of the iPod generation. People don't have one style of music on their iPods. It goes from Lauryn Hill to Sinatra to Bach to Nirvana. I don't think people listen to one genre. I'm a moody artist, I move around a lot musically."
There's no denying The ArchAndroid is an odd bird -- Sir Greendown evokes a Scott Walker outtake, of all things; the album is punctuated with honest-to-God orchestral overtures. But Monae is a vivid reminder of music's capacity to create genuinely original soundscapes.
Kansas native Monae, who produced the record along with input from Sean "Diddy" Combs and OutKast's Big Boi, embraces a big-tent philosophy, expanding the definition of pop music. Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes turns up on Make the Bus, while agit-rap pioneer Saul Williams guests on Dance or Die. The propulsive Cold War is one of 2010's great singles, which feels absolutely nothing like the Big Boi-augmented Tightrope, a track that would bring a smile to Amy Winehouse's grizzled face.
But all this excess would be inconsequential if the songs didn't pop as they do. The ArchAndroid is one of the most exciting albums -- in any genre -- to arrive thus far in 2010. We can only hope that Monae will build upon this dazzling, ferociously inventive debut, and return to blow our minds every couple years.