The Electric Lady imagines a hypothetical future, one where humans and androids love whomever they want, where water turns to wine just in time for the party, and where every trip to the dance floor is as spine-tingling as watching the Four Horsemen ride across the sky. But Janelle Monáe, the Kansas-born, Atlanta-based, pompadoured soul singer behind The Electric Lady, is much more of a social progressive than a musical one. She’s not in the business of discovering new sounds so much as breaking down the boundaries between the old ones. The record, Monáe’s follow-up to 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, is futuristic in the same way the world of the Fallout video game series is futuristic, which is to say it sounds like a heavily stylized version of the past.
This Lady loves the classics, no doubt about it. Big bands, Bond themes, Miles Davis, Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Motown girl groups, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, cocktail jazz, Gloria Estefan, Michael and Janet Jackson, Broadway musicals, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Timbaland, that Missy Elliott-produced “Lady Marmelade” remake — all that and more is percolating within these 77 minutes. That’s not even mentioning the influences who were actually present in Atlanta roasting turkey with Monáe and her Wondaland Arts Society, a guest list that includes living legends (Prince, Erykah Badu), fellow budding R&B art-stars (Solange, Miguel) and Esperanza Spalding, the jazz bassist who upset Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy a few years back.
Some of those guests make more of an impact than others — “Primetime” continues a parade of great Miguel duets this year that also included Mariah Carey’s “#Beautiful” and J. Cole’s “Power Trip” — but their very presence is part of The Electric Lady‘s monumental excess. The cumulative impact of so many reference points is a record that walks the line between exhilarating and exhausting. Monáe’s appetite for pop history knows no bounds, which means her schizoid approach might strike you as “ballsy” and “wildly kaleidoscopic” (per our own T. Cole Rachel) or “such a goddam mess!” (per our own Tom Breihan, in an email trying to convince me to write about the solid new Arctic Monkeys record instead). The Electric Lady is all over the place musically, held together mainly by Monáe’s carefully defined visual aesthetic, her formidable charisma and some conceptual threads about a call-in radio show and Cindi Mayweather, the allegorical android protagonist from her last album.
That allegory gets too heavy-handed during the skit in which callers proclaim, “They should just do whatever they do to people like that,” and, “Robot love is queer!” But despite the usual awkwardness and annoyance associated with skits, those interludes help to frame The Electric Lady as the kind of sprawling event record that Monáe probably grew up listening to, worlds to themselves like Stankonia and Late Registration and The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Those very-long-players were jammed with ideas too, but each one held together because of the magnetic creative force behind it.
Monáe is that kind of star. Her voice is strong and sweet. Her performances are fearless and, yes, Electric. When she flirts with the question of her sexuality on “Q.U.E.E.N.”, in contrast to the clumsy skits, it’s as rousing as empowerment anthems come. She’s confrontational, swaggering as she shakes off her shackles. That mood pops up again on the smashing, banging, chalanga-langa-langing “Dance Apocalyptic”, when Monáe sings, “You found a way to break out!” after detailing some “kissing with friends” in the ladies’ restroom. She’s made something here that lives up to her own multifaceted persona: a love record, a party record, a fight record, a make-your-dreams-come-true record. It’s an album about running wild and free, and it practices what it preaches.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Weeknd’s first official LP of nihilistic seduction jams, Kiss Land.
• The latest in a line of great workmanlike, Homme-lovin’ Arctic Monkeys records, AM.
• Coming Apart, the debut from Kim Gordon’s noise project Body/Head.
• B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time, the sophomore solo turn from all-star guest rapper 2 Chainz.
• Factory Floor’s awesome self-titled aggro-disco debut LP.
• Holy Ghost!’s glimmering sophomore disco set Dynamics.
• Soul weirdo Willis Earl Beal’s hi-fi turn Nobody knows.
• Delorean’s latest Balearic pop compendium Apar.
• The US release of UK chin-strokers London Grammar’s If You Wait.
• Man Man’s Mike Mogis-produced maturation On Oni Pond.
• Obits’s latest garage-punk rager Bed & Bugs.