Merely calling Janelle Monáe one of a kind would be a total understatement, like really. Janelle Monáe is one of a handful of R&B artists who brings something truly different, fresh, and eclectic to the table. Incredibly nonconformist, Monáe beats to her own drummer, from the tuxedo she swears by to the bombastic, illustrious tunes she captivates us with. Her second full-length album (third if you include her debut EP in that conversation) The Electric Lady shows no fall-off for Monáe – girlfriend’s got it y’all. Perhaps most shocking about the album is that she was able to get Prince to collaborate with her – your mouths should be agape ‘cuz don’t no one get ‘The Purple One’ on their album!
An orchestral overture opens, entitled “Suite IV Electric Overture”. Establishing the refined, artistic liberation of this album and the incredibly individualistic Monáe, the overture seems appropriate. “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” brings the first punch, intact with Prince lending his distinct pipes. The vocal chemistry between the two is like a match made in musical heaven – it’s that good. The vocal harmonies rock as well, though perhaps the biggest highlight is when Monáe really digs in to her inner rock-chick showing some unstoppable grittiness. Follow that juggernaut up with another, the fantastic single “Q.U.E.E.N.” which features a legend in it’s own right in Erykah Badu. Catchy, ‘real talk’, soulful, contemporary, and laden with swagger, “Q.U.E.E.N.” is one of the best songs of 2013, regardless of genre. “Am I a freak for dancing around?” Of course not! Monáe even throws some rhymes in there, further showing the artist’s versatility and restlessness. No complaints thus far.
Title track “Electric Lady”, featuring Solange, continues the musical impressiveness, even if it can’t outdo the one-two punch of “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” or “Q.U.E.E.N.”. As always, Monáe compels vocally, as does the more eclectic, hipster Knowles sister. Following one of many interludes (“Good Morning Midnight”), “Primetime” is an alternative R&B match made in heaven. Janelle Monáe and Miguel? YES! No wonder “…it’s a prime time for our love / and heaven is betting on us”, as the standout refrain goes on this valedictory showing. To make it even more romantic and sexy, those vocal harmonies are simply stunning as are the lead vocals. After being “Primetime”, Monáe declares “we were unbreakable / we were like rock and roll / we were like a king and queen / I want you to know…” on the fine “We Were Rock and Roll”. Like “Primetime”, love remains the theme, compared with rock and roll. Works right? Yep.
Following “The Chrome Shoppe” (another interlude), Janelle goes cray cray on “Dance Apocalyptic”. The hip-hop leaning intro is enough to signify this: “Bands they make her dance apocalyptic now…” Initially, I felt a bit less enthused about Monáe’s second single, but hearing it contextually, it is still good stuff. I mean, she “…need to know, if the world say’s it’s time to go / tell me, will you freak out?” Sensible enough, right? Well in Janelle’s world that is. Monáe goes chill on “Look Into My Eyes”, sounding much like ‘60s or ‘70s pop. A lovely showing, “Look Into My Eyes” doesn’t supersede any juggernauts, but it still manages to please at a high level. It closes Suite IV capably.
Another orchestral overture opens Suite V (“Suit V Electric Overture”), borrowing it’s basis from none other than “Look Into My Eyes”… at least initially. The interlude eventually opts for major key, uptempo fare, only to return to a slower tempo. “It’s Code” proceeds with soul in mind, anchored by a rich, animated bass line. As always, Monáe delivers the vocal goods with her nuanced vocals. The cut segues into the uptempo, groovy “Ghetto Woman” which sounds like a soulful, funky throwback as well, but without being anachronistic. The words are as much a draw as the production, particularly the chorus: “And when you cry don’t you know that I am crying with You? / When people put you down, yeah way down and you feel / like you’re alone…” Empowering, “Ghetto Woman” seems like a fine companion cut to the previous “Q.U.E.E.N.” – rap intact as well. And shout out to Kellindo Parker’s awesome guitar solo as well.
Following the android-themed interlude (“Our Favorite Fugitive”), Monáe wants the “Victory”. “And if tomorrow shall come to me,” she sings at the end of verse one, “I’ll count your every kiss as a victory.” She confirms the toughness of victoriousness: “Cause to be victorious, you must find glory in the little things…” True, and I suppose a kiss could certainly signify a blooming romance. Lyric analysis aside, what about those soaring upper range notes from Monáe? This totally sounds like a Lauryn Hilltype of song! Continuing on the much travelled pathway of love, “Can’t Live Without Your Love” is self-explanatory. That definitely doesn’t make it a deal breaker or second-rate either.
“Sally Ride” is definitely clever, particularly if “Can’t Live Without Your Love” seemed the slightest bit too ‘normal’ for Monáe. While there are several messages going on here, there seem to be allusions to the late Sally Ride (“I’m packing my space suit / and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon”) that transcend Monáe’s ‘android’ stuff. Also lines like “Just wake up, Mary / Have you heard the news? / oh, just wake up, Mary / you got the right to choose…” seem like a reference to freedom of choice in numerous social regards (sexuality, career, etc.). This wouldn’t be far-fetched given Monáe’s love of individualism, nonconformity, and empowerment of women.
Monáe receives the assist from another eclectic, classy standout in Esperanza Spaldingon penultimate cut “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”, another love-oriented. “It’s too late, you’re hypnotized / she’s got Dorothy Dandridge eyes / and you love her, you love her, you love her, you lave that girl…” The poetic nature of the cuts makes it shine. The closer “What an Experience” says it all. Sure it’s referencing love, but in the context of this 19 track effort, isn’t it quite the experience in itself?
How good is The Electric Lady? It’s awesome, simply put. Consistent, fresh, retro, and captivating, Monáe continues to pave her own way. Forget all notions about a post-R&B world where the soul is dead, Monáe has got it going on. Go on and twerk it Janelle! #QUEEN
Favorites: “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love”; “Q.U.E.E.N.”; “Primetime”; “We Were Rock and Roll”; “Ghetto Woman”; “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”
Janelle Monáe | The Electric Lady | Bad Boy / Wandaland | US Release Date: September 10, 2013