when i first heard janelle monáe’s toe-tappy-crazy-infectious single “tightrope,” via youtube, i was entranced. THAT LOOK, THOSE EYES. and soon after i was gifted an old-school CD copy of her 2010 album the archandroid. i listened to it once through, and it left me feeling confused… but strangely happy. this new offering leaves me equally aurally stunned, like i’ve been vaulted into a realm of outer space where the sonic rules of arrangement are bent into disco-fectious black holes. totally confused. but once again, i appreciate janelle for sending me on the trip, because she heads (and guides us, relatively gently) into territory nobody else seems to have muddied.
janelle monáe makes concept records. if you’ve missed the plot, here’s your roadmap: janelle is an android named cindi mayweather. it’s The Future, and humans and androids are having a rough time getting along. whether you’re going to get much further/deeper than that is probably going to depend on whether you study the lyric booklet directly.
bam, welcome to planet janelle, where the over-the-top production of this record is a gumbo melange of a vajillion ingredients. you are sonically assaulted by a pastiche of blasted history, as if janelle the android-outlaw-in-a-tuxedo marched into hollywood’s spaghetti western music archive division with a machine gun, ripped the office apart in a hail of space-bullets, tied prince to the bumper of her getaway saucer, and ferried the smoking debris back to her android-cave-laboratory, test tubes bubbling, where she then stayed up all night cackling, cutting and pasting together the singed fragments of her booty. it’s a total cinematic sonic fuckshow of a record: surf guitar getting swallowed by ravellian operatic crashes, then sweeping orchestras sinking into a gutter of embarrassing disco gutters. many tracks sound like outtakes from the opening credits of a ’70s bond flick in which the lead villain is a transplant from bladerunner. in fact, the album is so bond-esque that she even quotes from “the 007 theme” in one of the longer musical interludes. Bad-ass, janelle! cite your sources.
if genre-hopping is janelle’s main weapon, she at least has the pipes to back it up; we stay tuned. she’s not afraid to press her voice to its ragged edge; her shit-hot vocals work both when nailed against the overboard orchestration, but also when taking center stage against the more stripped-down moments (which luckily appear enough times on the album to give us a bit of breathing room). taking a page out of prince’s minimal!maximal! bible, she’s letting us know that her maximalism is deliberate — she’s not hiding behind anything. she doesn’t HAVE TO DO IT, but she just seems to like things explosive, busy, theatrical, funked-up, sentimental, operatic, and unrelentingly pulsating… all at once.
when it comes to the lyrical content, i’m torn. janelle is doing all of mankind a service by not giving us yet another chick r&b singer with paint-by-number lyrics that make the genre such a general turn-off to someone like me, who likes their lyrics hyperemotional and barbed. but the theatrical purist in me wants a deeper, more followable journey: you’re making a concept record? then i want more of a commitment to the concept, goddammit. don’t leave me hanging, janelle. even armed with google, i can’t totally follow the plot; nor figure out why a song like “it’s code” bugs me so much. is it because it doesn’t seem to fit within the concept at all? or is it because i have an ALLERGY to this sort of over-cooked ’70s music, the way i can’t stand the colors yellow and brown? anytime someone starts saying “ooh baby” un-ironically… i shiver. BUT, then again, since janelle is an android, maybe she DOES mean it ironically. I JUST DON’T KNOW. i’m left guessing. baby baby baby BABY don’t leave i cant leave without your love i can’t sleep i can’t eat BUT wait wait wait WAIT JANELLE… i thought you were an android? androids don’t need to sleep. or eat. whatever. because THEN she starts rapping about equality over a string section that sounds like the theme to “the love boat” and i’m just… sold. because it’s so fucking weird. you win, j.
especially with “primetime”: it’s a delicious ’80s throwback, a sparse and sluggish slow jam with a dreamy edge (backup vocals betray a hint of “wave of mutilation”) and i’m happy to say it’s like a lana del rey number that i can believe in.
the whole album is threaded together with little snippets of radio theater: there are short interludes taken from a radio station called WDRD (droids are everywhere on this album), hosted by one “DJ car crash” who fields opinions from the community (some sound like they’re from the valley, it’s hilarious) about human/android interaction. given the hot topics of 2013, the parallel to gay marriage (or just the acceptability of gay love in general) is easy to pick up — but that’d be limiting. the idea of disallowing humans from loving or doing ANYTHING or ANYONE is universally icky, and janelle’s chosen metaphor just happens to be androids.
i get lost then found again. “we were rock and roll” is my most WTF moment: it’s full on jimmy-jammy-clap-throwback-time, along with full bee-gee breaks….david bowie’s “heroes” as brought to you by thesaturday night fever soundtrack. we WERE rock and roll. until this happened. but? again… janelle manages to get away with all this because she’s just so darn CLASSY. her vocals are never overdone and never sound self-conscious. “dance apocalyptic” is a truly mind-bending mash-up of ingredients, making a mess-collage of quiet riot, the “faster pussycat” theme song, and everybody’s favorite watch-pee-wee-dance-on-the-bar song: “tequila.” and when she drops in these bizarre samples at the end of the song, fuck “WHASSA THE MATTER? YOUR CHICKEN TASTE LIKE PORK? YOU HAVE TRIPLETS INSTEAD OF TWINS? DOES YOUR FOOD TASTE PLASTIC?”… i just wanna hug her. and if i’d heard this shit in the background of any café, i’d ask what the hell it was, because it’s so damn INTERESTING.
the only problem with some of these songs is that they never dock into their own memorable hooks; it’s groove-oriented and therefore hard to hang up in your memory palace. i remember this from “tightrope”… it’s a sort of a theme of janelle’s work: the hooks don’t sink into your skin. she’s a vibe-master, not a melodicist. we eaters of musics, we are simple creatures who can become overwhelmed by too many ingredients, the spice can’t work on its own without some meat.
“ghetto woman” could stand up as emblematic of the whole record: empowering but cluttered. love it or not, you can’t look away (it’s practically mahavishnu), while “look into my eyes” is the ultimate retro throwback of goldfinger-era vixen themesongs. you can see the opening credits roll over the smudged film. strings, chimes, gunslinger percussion, the 9th chords and jazz intervals… the song progresses into a schizophrenic instrumental and one minute later the scene shifts… we’re back in the copacabana, janelle has tucked back her android-liquid eyes, and tucked her gun back into her latex tuxedo. another minute later the scene shifts again and we’re plopped in a quiet field, and it’s time to get it on again. there’s no rest: this bitch is taking you on a journey and you cannot escape. and while it sometimes plummets into the generic, it’s generic from a different time. which isn’t generic. let’s get it on.
who IS THIS WOMAN? and where did she COME FROM? is she the bastard child of ennio morricone and octavia butler? don’t matter: janelle, you an ipanema alien, and i love you. rock forth, do not stop making this mess. please god.