Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady Album Review by Yvorn Aswad

Janelle Monae - The Electric Lady

Title: The Electric Lady
Artist: Janelle Monae
Label: Wondaland Arts Society, Bad Boy Records
Genre(s): R&B, Soul
Released: September 10, 2013
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Cindi Mayweather is back in full, futuristic, funk effect! Janelle Monae’s latest offering The Electric Lady once again transports us to the world of Metropolis, 2719 AD. Using her unique sound that combines the influence of big band and classic R&B, she creates a masterful work sure to please her fans and possibly even win over new ones. A complex album with many layers, Electric Lady is as rich and ingenious as anything Monae has ever created.

In prototypical Monae style, the album begins with a gripping and eerie overture that reintroduces us to the dystopic Metropolis. The ominous, almost chant-like voices proclaim the arrival of the “Electric Her”, with her being none other than Monae’s android protagonist (and alter-ego), Cindi Mayweather. The heady sounds of the overture allow us into the tortured mind of Cindi Mayweather.

The last time we saw our heroine (on Monae’s The ArchAndroid Suites II and III of her Metropolis series), she regrettably departed her human lover, Sir Anthony Greendown, in pursuit of her higher calling as a freedom fighter for her people, the androids.  Immediately, Monae reminds us that her music surpasses the scope of this present time, and yet resonates in a sharp, poignant.  Mayweather, stuck between the love of her life and her passion for social justice, has chosen the latter, more arduous road.  The “Suite IV Electronic Overture” haunts by contrasting the grandness of Mayweather’s new position (represented by the bold instrumentation) to the loneliness of her situation (the muttered ruminations of “I don’t wanna be a slave again”).

Nonetheless, we learn soon the brilliance inspired by Mayweather’s solitude. Monae kicks the audio party off with a psychedelic track featuring none other than Prince himself! The song is audacious, with Monae and Prince belting out that they are “gonna give you what you love”.  Indeed, the song is as much the fictional Cindi Mayweather’s anthem as it is a present day Monae’s rebuttal to all those who wonder why she can’t “just be normal”.  As the song saunters on with its almost rock and roll vibe, it’s as if you can envision Monae and Prince jamming to it.

The energy of the album continues with the lead single “QUEEN” (featuring neo-soul godmother Erykah Badu) and the title track “The Electric Lady”. “The Electric Lady” is a glorious number, featuring the background vocals of soul-star hipster Solange Knowles on the chorus. The strength of these three pulsing, high-octane songs is that though they fit into the Metropolis narrative, they all possess the potential to live as stand-alone singles (though, to be sure, listeners will be hit with subtle hints of Monae’s signature seer-like observations. “Are we the last generation of our people?” she asks at a break neck cadence over such funky instrumentation that you just might miss it…)

Monae brilliantly ties these songs back to the story-arc of Metropolis through her three hilarious interludes led by a character DJ Crash Crash, hosting a radio show “Midnight Morning” that is obviously popular with the droid community. On these interludes Monae perfectly captures the voice and aesthetic of Black radio culture, ingeniously paralleling it to another minority population: the android community of 2719. The radio station acts as a community epicenter, dispersing public knowledge, providing culturally relevant entertainment, and prompting airwave politicking on the most buzzed, messianic figure of their time, Cindi Mayweather

To round out Suite IV, Monae partners with fellow R&B cool kid Miguel on the duet “PrimeTime”.  There’s a quality to it that is reminiscent of other R&B powerhouse duet partners, a la Teena Marie and Rick James. If no other song does so, this fierce duet its best poised to sweep modern R&B charts and radio stations.

Electric Lady was presumably the fourth and final suite in the Metropolis series. And so it comes as a pleasant surprise that halfway through the album, at the conclusion of the hypnotic “Look in to My Eyes”, a seductive overture reminiscent of Shirley Bassey begins playing. This is the overture to Suite V. Surprisingly upbeat, and totally jazzy, Monae dropped (without much fanfare) that she has extended her series to seven suites! (Much to the chagrin on the Wolfmasters!).

If Suite IV is the public’s speculation on the shadowy yet influential, Mayweather, Suite V takes a turn to explore the intimate, sincere yet forbidden love between the droid and human. The bluesy ballads of Suite V, ladled heavy with Motown and swing influences, paint a portrait of what appears a broken-hearted Cindi Mayweather.

The stirring “Victory” is the best display of Monae’s resounding, velvety voice. Belting “she’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes”, we feel every tender bit of emotion with which Monae has imbued her epic story. The guitar riffs coupled with the harmonies singing “to find a greater love”, will arrest your heart, wanting you to give in to the beauty that is this fantasy she has spun.

If one song strays from the overall narrative arc of the album, it’s the grand “Ghetto Women”, an ode to the working class Black woman. This song addresses the stereotypes working class women have to battle, pairing it with the downright baddest horn, drum, and guitar arrangements to accompany R&B in a while. Adding to the song, Monae touches on a personal note, paying tribute to her own mother. Stating “Ghetto Woman, you’re the reason I believe in me”, this song is nothing short of tour de force of feminism and a celebration of a dignified, humble life!

Monae’s cerebral album showcases her brilliance. With this offering, she proves that above all, she is an artist! It’s unfortunate that with her talent, many people choose to pass by her work with a simple response of “I just can’t get in to her”. Though she has records on this album that are fully capable of commanding top R&B, if not pop or alternative charts,  her music is much richer than that. This is an artistic effort, well labored and well-loved. To those who are looking for a passive listening experience, this album will certainly provide enough car-stereo blasting tunes. But those who are willing to invest the time to taste and see this so-called “emotion picture” will reap the greatest reward.

Rating: A+

Tracks We Like: The Electric Lady, PrimeTime, Victory, Ghetto Woman

The Electric Lady Track 4: Electric Lady

The Electric Lady Track 6: PrimeTime

The Electric Lady Track 13: Ghetto Woman

The Electric Lady Track 15: Victory

The Electric LadyThe ArchAndroidMetropolis: The Chase SuiteQ.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu)

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