Review: Janelle Monáe – “The ArchAndroid”

Posted: May 20, 2010 by RA in Music
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The ArchAndroid

The last 12 months have seen their share of musical dick-teases — highly anticipated releases from great artists that, despite brilliant singles, leave you wanting. From Maxwell’s BLACKsummer’snight to Sade’s Solider of Love to, arguably, Erykah’s Return of the Ankh (brilliant album, just not quite as incredible as its predecessor), trusted heavy hitters have kinda failed to hit, well… heavy.

Enter Janelle Monáe Robinson, the Kansas native who may well have churned out the best album of the year so far. The ArchAndroid is an exercise in the  familiar — referential without being derivative. It starts strong with “Dance or Die”, a moody workout from the same Afro-influenced, 1980s proto-Hip-Hop realm as Busta Rhymes’ “Dangerous”. As surprisingly unsurprising as it is propulsive, it’s got to be the album’s biggeest highlight, next to “Tightrope”. Two tracks later, the Michael Jackson-inspired “Locked Inside” is introduced with a drum kick straight from “Rock With You”, and grooves with the same exuberance as the Jackson classic.

Not only would Hendrix fans feel nostalgia at tracks like “Mushrooms and Roses”, so will anyone who’s seen the “onstage art class” segment of her stage show. Also familiar to concertgoers is fellow Suite II track “Come Alive”.

Besides the Stevie-esque “Say You’ll Go”, the most eerily subtle yet uncanny references exist on “Oh Maker” and “Neon Valley Street” — records that 1998-era Lauryn Hill would want to make in 2010, right down to the melodic style and meandering vocal runs that echo Hill’s “When it Hurts So Bad”.

And that’s perhaps the most refreshing thing about this album — its contradictions. Yes, she references the greats, but she does so as a truly accomplished student of music — nothing like that damn Keys, who copies off old term papers and gets an A every year because she looks like Little Miss Perfect. And then there’s her look. Finally, after years of waiting, we have a style-driven artist (if her three Vogue features are to be believed) who actually comes with substance. In fact, I’d argue her preference for the B&W tuxedos makes her quite the opposite, in that she chooses to perform in uniform. Either way, most importantly, she’s a style-driven artist who can actually sing. Like, really fucking blow. In the ’80s heyday of Prince, Michael, and Annie Lennox, this may not have seemed like such a big deal. But here we are in 2010, after a decade that brought us everyone from Cassie to Rihanna to Ciara to, yes, the inescapable Gaga, and style and substance seem to have become mutually exclusive in the major-label game.

All in all, it’s a brilliantly written and conceived album, greatly enriched by guitarist Kellindo Parker, with whom Monáe has a special symbiosis. Even the pacing is brilliant in its contradictions. For instance the first three tracks, the album’s most pop-accessible section, turn out to be its least shuffle-friendly. The songs flow seamlessly into one another like in Suite I, but the track-separation points aren’t as cleverly handled. So playing either “Faster” or “Dance or Die” independent of the other ends up in a pretty fractured listening experience — “forget iTunes singles; buy the album.” What it lacks in uniformity of genre, it makes up (assuming that’s a shortcoming) with uniformity of quality. The only possible lowlighht is “Make the Bus”, on which unnecessary guests, Of Montreal, do their best Bowie-as-Stardust impression. (Spoiler: it’s not that good). Still, the song isn’t awful — just poorly executed.

This is one of those albums that become more enjoyable and rewarding with each listen — perfectly achieving the artist’s cinematic aspirations without compromising on plain-old aural stiumlation.

You’ll get her next time, E-Badu.

  1. Dayo says:

    You KNOW I’m gonna disagree about Ms. Badu, right?? You just said that to taunt me! But that’s fine….:@

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