Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

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.

Comments (26)
  1. Just picked it up on my lunch break. Looks like me and Ms. Android herself are gonna have us a dinner-dance party this evening.

  2. Started off this morning with a spin of AM, then moved on to The Electric Lady, and haven’t been able to switch it up since. This album makes it nearly impossible to not break out in office chair dance moves… needless to say, I’ve been getting quite the number of weird looks around work today.

    Great week for new releases all around tho! Once I finally move on from TEL I’m excited to check out the new Holy Ghost!, London Grammar, and Factory Floor.

  3. Subiza was Delorean’s last album.

  4. Can’t wait to get home to listen to this. Yes, Monae is a bit cold and distant (almost androidesque), but dang she makes a catchy tune.

    I will also say that the Arctic Monkeys record is surprisingly good.

    Finally, I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to say that Delorean’s Subiza came out today rather than in 2010.

  5. I guess I can understand these claims that the album’s a little too all-over-the-place, as long as these writers are *just now* being introduced to Monae. Have you guys heard the last album? Shit was crazy. (Brilliant, yes, but crazy.)

    Anyway, The Electric Lady, compared to her past material, is some straight-up focused shit. Part of me, I guess, misses the weird jazz/indie-rock from The ArchAndroid, but then I listen to “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” or any of the other soul/funk/R&B JAMS on this album and all is right.

    So yeah, this album has even further cemented me as a Monae fanboy, and it’s probably my album of the year so far.

    • Yea I have a hard time believing, to quote Tom that it’s a “such a goddamn mess”. And although it puts on many hats it still has a very focused feel. It’s no more all over the place than Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, for which I feel it has many similarities to, musically and allegorically.

  6. No mention of 2 Chainz B.O.A.T.S II: Me Time? It’s not groundbreaking but considering it’s 2 Chainz it’s actually pretty focused and has some good cuts.

  7. I was hoping to see Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us as the AotW.

    Monae’s album is pretty stellar but I found the radio segments very disjointed. I liked the Archandriod/The Chase Suite because the Cindi Merriweather story was an integral part of the songs(Neon Valley Street, Oh Maker, BaBopBye Yah) but in this album it just feels sort of awkwardly stuck for the sake of it.

    • Janelle’s interludes are the only ones since College Dropout that not only do I think they fit the concept of the album, but are actually quite enjoyable. If I’m listening to the album straight through, I don’t even skip them. They are funny and clever, and there isn’t a lot of them so you don’t get tired of it. For me at least, they really work.

  8. B.O.A.T.S. II!

    I know, I know, some people are just too good for 2 Chainz. But if you can get through ‘Fork’, ‘I Do It,’ or ‘Black Unicorn’ without smiling, then I just don’t know what to tell you.

    Janelle is the right pick, though, as I’m pretty blown away by her album.


    As a huge Prince fan (the kind that has him as all-time favorite), I instantly had my jaw dropped by Givin’ Em What They Love. It’s a bad-ass, sexy attitude jam that gets the perfect amount of Prince and Janelle’s swagger, and damn, that chemistry is incredible. Might even be his best jam since Sexy MF, so no wonder Janelle seems to be the only artist Prince likes when covering his songs (he seemed to a few years ago when she sang in an awards show a few years ago). He probably sees a lot of himself in Janelle, that funky, balls to the wall attitude in a ever expanding artistic identity.

    A friend of mine said he doesn’t like Janelle that much but he feels she has maybe “too many personalities”, and I can see that, but I feel The Electric Lady excels in finding that sorta ambitious and broad range of references in a more focused, precise form. The ArchAndroid was more adventurous and surprising, but I do find The Electric Lady to already be more rewarding. I’m absolutely floored by the consistency of the songs, how easily girl can turn from high energy to poignant, in a way that she is the rare performer that can pull off both something like Q.U.E.E.N. and Victory and somehow earn that.

    She may not be as batshit crazy as she used to, but she sure continues to be extremely versatile (maybe even more). And I love how even in its more intimate and personal moments the album equates revindication to celebration, as one being consequence of the other or of turning them into the same thing in effort to make them worthwhile. It makes for a very fun and compelling listen. I love this album so much. The booty don’t lie, guys and I’m dancing my ass off.

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  12. Nice call, Stereogum – not surprising, but I’m just glad it was good enough to warrant the spot (which is is). I still prefer The Archandroid thus far, but this one doesn’t crap out in the back end like that did, which is nice, even if the highs aren’t as high. Need to spend some more time with the Man Man, too, as I always enjoy their efforts, but only gave it one spin so far.

  13. This is a good album but I’m a bit surprised by this reaction. “She’s not in the business of discovering new sounds” is correct. That keeps my reaction to The Electric Lady subdued. Not only does this album feel familiar but it ultimately feels very common. Thousands of black churches around the country have performers and vocalists able to elicit the same reactions the Electric Lady does: to make listeners feel like dancing their asses off. Which obviously isn’t a problem. But I’m not comfortable with modern internet audiences engaging black cultural performers and being blown away by musical choices that are relatively common to black music, in generations past and present. Monae demonstrated an ability to explore new sounds with the ArchAndroid. That this album does that far less feels like a step back in her development as an artist. Plus, that a woman expresses her love to another woman doesn’t feel entirely “progressive” in 2013. There’s nothing about this album to dislike and I wish her a lot of success with it. But not discovering new sounds isn’t an option anymore. Kanye West made a career of ” breaking down the boundaries between the old ones.” That tradition carries on with Yeezus. But at the same time, his willingness to expand the listeners expectations in the process made it worth celebrating. The Electric Lady? Not so much.

    • Not discovering new sounds is not an option anymore? I strongly disagree. Music thrives in many others forms besides innovation. The fact is Janelle fits in with many different branches of black music and infuse them with a distinct personality and a lot of talent and strong songwriting and melody hooks.
      You’re basically putting a pressure unrealistic to anyone who is not working with electronic music and maybe hip-hop. Because guess what? Music structure, in terms of melody, harmony, tempo, etc. has settled a long time ago. The new sounds you talk about are production innovations, and not real changes in the foundation of the music itself.

      And not every artist is gonna feel the need to abandon every thing they love for the sake of trying to be groundbreaking. Not even Kanye, as much as I love him, does that, he adapts new production flourishes into his work, but at its heart, it’s still hip-hop that exists for a long, long time. And if you think The ArchAndroid explored new sounds, I suggest you catch to r&b and funk past, because no, she wasn’t. If anything, this is the same Janelle as always, only more focused. Most of Janelle’s fans love her not because they think she is doing something new, but because she is doing something different, something that’s very much her own version of music from the past.

      I think the pressure for “new” can be great for music, but can also be terrible. What artists like Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince. Hendrix and many others did is worth keeping around and revitalize them and give a new personality/perspective from today. I don’t feel music is created to exist in only a certain moment in time and then abandoned for the sake of production innovation. And as someone who listens to a lot of music from that period, I say Janelle is a rare case in which she actually tries to match them in spirit, not literally. Even she stands within the same sonic range, she doesn’t feel like a calculated throwback like so many other artists. if anything, it feels like she starts from a point of reference, and goes out to do her won thing from there own, even if in this album it’s not as batshit crazy in execution.

      Also, a woman expressing her love for another woman isn’t progressive? What are you implying? Because, there is still a huge stigma in talking about gay love life in music, or hell, gay life in general. Mostly, when music about gay people comes along, is done as a “song for the cause”, not something personal that comes a gay perspective. You seriously think a big label artist with a strong following singing about being in love with a women in rather poignant music means no advances where made or that will lead to no other advances in the future? Because that seems a rather limited way to look at it, with all due respect.

      • Just once I’d like to read a comment thread that avoids using Yeezus as some almight reference, as if its some revolutionary benchmark. Seriously, how many female R&B singers are out there trying to disrupt conventional pop like this girl?

        There should be a stop sign in front of any argument involving “breaking down boundaries” when you compare Kayne West to Janelle. One goes out of their way to demoralize women and the other goes out to celebrate them, and that’s just from a lyrical perspective which in itself is something we need more of, I’d think.

  14. I dunno, my favorite album this week is Balance and Composure’s The Things We Think We’re Missing. It’s not even given an honorable mention this week’s rundown of releases, tho. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  15. Factory Floor, Balance And Composure, Ariana Grande, and Arctic Monkeys albums have been in heavy rotation. Heard bits and pieces of Janelle Monae’s, but that 77 minute runtime is keeping me from fully digesting it right away.

  16. This album is an absolute blast. Great pick and and even better EOY one too.

  17. Here’s my challenge to you Stereogum, branch out, and innovate rather than being Pitchfork Jr. Whenever they really hype an album, or artist, you follow suit, a few hours/days later. Janelle Monae and MGMT are just two current examples. I have nothing against either artist, but Pitchfork beat you to the punch.

    You have a lot of great columns (worst to best, deconstructing albums/genres/scenes/trends, looking back at an album at a notable anniversary, etc.), and you don’t do daily reviews. News is obviously going to criss – cross, but don’t echo their hyped content, deliver more original content. There’s certainly new music they overlook or underrate. Take advantage and have your own voice.

    I prefer your less arrogant tone, and would much rather discover music on your site than on theirs, because your writers actually care about music rather than view it as a coarse reflection of a meaningless existence.

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