True ambition is an endangered species in the pop music world.
Swinging for the fences, artistically speaking, often runs afoul of the industry’s perceived mission: maintaining the bottom line. Art and commerce don’t coexist so much as one is trapped in an abusive relationship with the other.
But, fortunately, there are still those musicians who can hardly contain the breadth of their vision, who must articulate the dazzling ideas ricocheting around their hyperactive heads — quarterly profits be damned.
Janelle Monae is just such an artist, one who dove into the mainstream with her 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, a masterful freshman effort owing debts to Prince and Outkast, but feeling wholly original nonetheless. (It was one of my top albums that year.)
Turns out, she was just warming up.
The Electric Lady, the hotly anticipated follow-up to The ArchAndroid, is a near-masterpiece of conceptual R&B, a record pushing a genre already exploring new horizons (courtesy of acts like the Weeknd and Drake) into outer space.
Billed as the fourth and fifth parts of her Metropolis series, Monae is in command from the opening moments of the 19-track opus, kicking things off with an incredible suite of songs — Givin’ Em What They Love; Q.U.E.E.N. and the title track — featuring heavy-hitting cameos from Prince, Erykah Badu and Solange.
That she outshines all three of those names speaks to Monae’s charisma, as well as her sharp-eyed focus: She turns away no help, but there is no question whose show this is.
Immediately, it’s evident that Lady is far funkier than its predecessor, which occasionally prized brains above danceable breakdowns. This collection, produced by Monae along with a coterie of collaborators (Big Boi and Sean “Diddy” Combs among them), is more polished than ArchAndroid, as well as being more confident, which is astonishing. The embrace of melody and R&B, in its myriad guises, from balladry to fist-pumping anthems, makes what Monae has to say stickier and more palatable.
The only misstep comes when Monae hammers her political messages — in short, Monae says, human or robot, we all deserve to live a happy life — with a lack of subtlety not unsurprising but still disappointing; it distracts from the carefully created and thoroughly realized fantasy.
But when Monae allows herself a moment to relax, as she does on the Miguel-augmented Primetime or Lady’s stunning (and aptly titled) closer, What an Experience, she reveals a romantic side of herself too often concealed beneath a layer of conceptual chrome. Genuinely sensual and inviting, it’s an appealing side of the 27-year-old that will hopefully be showcased more often.
“I’m packing up my spacesuit/And I’m taking my [expletive] and moving to the moon/Where there are no rules,” Monae sings on Sally Ride. It’s meant as a vow, a declaration of intent for the fictional Cindi Mayweather (her robotic avatar within the world of Metropolis), but it just as easily applies to the woman singing.
For those seeking bold artistic visions in an era when safe trumps sailing into the great beyond, you would do well to follow Janelle Monae — wherever she may go.