Janelle Monae always seems constrained. That feels like a strange word to label someone whose music defies every label applied to it, but it is the only one that seems apt. She has music, she has art and she has videos but none of those mediums seem able to completely hold all that goes on inside her mind. It was inevitable that her seven-part concept series Metropolis would be science fiction based as nothing else would fit the relentless degree of innovation that she pushes. Her latest installment, The Electric Lady, which serves as parts four and five, breaks away from her previous works to give us something personal, something new and something that truly lives up to the name Wondaland.
The first part feels more familiar, with an orchestral overture opening the album as did The Archandroid and the same jazzy pop and solid beats as her masterpiece debut. This time around she has a solid set of supporting artists. The keyword here though is support. Even Prince, who appears on the first song is clearly the guest in what is completely Janelle Monae’s album. Both of her singles, the excellent Q.U.E.E.N. (featuring Erykah Badu) and Dance Apocalyptic come from this half. This is music meant to be danced to, and while I can’t dance anything like her, I can’t sit still with music like this on either.
The world of Metropolis is sketched out by things like the beginning of Q.U.E.E.N. and fragments embedded throughout the album. The picture is still vague and while Cindi Mayweather (the Ziggy Stardust to Janelle Monae’s David Bowie) has definitely progressed along her path of becoming the android messiah, I couldn’t tell you exactly what she has done. This is an album though, not a novel, and the details are unimportant. What is important is the flights of imagination that it inspires and this set provokes creativity as well as anything I have ever experienced. Also, the DJ interludes are incredible.
The second half however is more of a soul album than anything else. This takes me pretty far out of my comfort zone as my foundation is far stronger with Asimov than with Sly, but her music is undeniable. This part showcases her voice, and while it is hard to isolate any single strength of Janelle Monae’s, her voice certainly has a good case for being the strongest of them all. It also gives her a chance to get a little personal than her android alter-ego had previously allowed. Suite V feels not only like Cindi Mayweather singing to her human lover but also a love letter to the classics of soul and funk. She does play with the standard structures and even drops a rap into the stellar Stevie Wonder-esque Ghetto Woman, but this an album from someone who clearly grew up with a love of the R&B greats. This is an intimate, soulful performance and would hold it’s own even if taken alone and not as a part of a larger set of work.
The Electric Lady is not just an album about the future, it is a blueprint for the future of pop, funk, soul and whatever else Janelle Monae decides to touch. While The Archandroid did push harder and better, this is the work of an artist that has moved far enough ahead that she can take a moment to stretch a little and look back on what she has come from. We are lucky that she shares it so well.