Janelle Monáe + Bad Boy Battle Underpopulation in Metropolis

Posted: June 4, 2010 by RA in Music, Race
Tags: ,

J-Money Wondamix

I know, I know. Another Janelle Monáe post.

But my blog-homeslice and Racialicious cohort Latoya Peterson wrote a great piece for The Root, commenting on Jenny Money’s** place in an industry dealing with the legacy of “race music”.

**Dayo, my musical mirror image renamed her this. Not only does it crack me up, it’s far easier typing for repeated references to an artist with an accent in her name.

Kitschy, socially conscious singer and songwriter Janelle Monae has all the tools for a successful debut music career–interesting and dynamic production, a melodic singing voice, an interesting look, a new dance–and one of hip-hop’s heavy hitters (Big Boi, of Outkast fame) as her mentor and co-collaborator. So why hasn’t her new single torn up the airwaves? Is it because the world isn’t ready for Monae’s tuxedoed swagger and retro-meets-R&B supersonic sound? Or is it the music industry’s stubborn adherence to narrowly defined genres, coupled with monopolization of the airwaves?

… Our current state of musical affairs stems from America’s racial past. Before euphemisms like ”urban” took hold, music was strictly divided among racial lines–black music for black audiences, white music for white audiences. These boundaries began eroding in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as music consumers would twist the radio dials in search of their favorite sound.

…[Radio program director Nikki] House notes: ”People that know [Monae] are music lovers,” code for typically more discerning listeners who are more likely to seek out the artists they like through alternate channels such as satellite radio, Internet-based stations and live shows. Such listeners aren’t likely to call ”urban” radio stations to request ”Tightrope,” House says–instead, they would send their e-mails and phone calls to independent stations.

House believes Monae will make it to mainstream success soon, but also points out it depends on how her record company (Diddy’s Bad Boy Records) markets her. If Monae’s work is only sold to adult contemporary stations, she might not cross over to urban stations, which typically attract a younger audience. Still, there is precedent–Usher’s 2008 hit, ”Love in this Club,” was a song originally marketed to older listeners; it eventually crossed over to all urban markets.

… In 2007, she released her first EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite through her Web site. The ArchAndroid, which dropped on May 18, debuted on the Billboard Top 200 charts at No. 17, sharing the stage with major forces like Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek, Justin Bieber, Usher, AC/DC and Lady Gaga.

Luckily for Janelle Monae, her unique sound has already started rocking the nation–if media gatekeepers aren’t willing to open their ears, they are going to miss the Monae-led musical revolution.

Alright, so I love Latoya, but I disagree on a few fundamental points.

First of all, in describing J-Money as a performer with “interesting and dynamic production, a melodic singing voice, an interesting look, [and] a new dance…”, she makes her sound like a Janet-like performer who can carry a tune, rather than the vocal dynamo she actually is.

This is what makes her such a compelling act, and thus, such a disappointment when she fails to catch on. The originality of late-’90s Kelis, with the (potential) stage dynamism of Beyonce. Throw in the vocal dexterity and social consciousness of Lauryn Hill, and you’ve got a fucking star. There is literally no female artist currently on the scene who combines style, substance, and sheer talent like she does. She has no excuse for not being huge right now — other than the sad truth of a populace that has forgotten it once valued talent as much as flash.

Also, by asserting that musical boundaries began eroding in the 1960s, Latoya minimizes just how long that process has taken. Let’s put it this way: Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” hit number one on what was called the Billboard “Hot Black Singles” chart. This was  in 1987. So while Latoya does argue that the legacy of the American record industry’s racial ugliness still lingers, it bears noting just how far from “there” we are.

The last quibble I have with her analysis comes with a twinge of sadness. Latoya argues that a number 17 debut, among the likes of major-label megastars like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Usher should be considered a victory. And to be sure, it is when compared with the number 115 bow of Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase). But this release was backed (at least in part) by a major label, and the superstar albums she mentioned were released anywhere from nine to 83 weeks ago. Plus, she had the backing of boldface names like Big Boi and Sean Combs.

Ultimately, I lay much of the blame at Combs’ doorstep. I expected that as the release date drew nearer, the promo machine would pick up speed. Instead, we only got brief appearances on Letterman and Ellen. Oh, and Carson Daly. But as Dave will tell you, nobody gives a damn about Carson Daly.

When given the gift of a telegenic, stage-savvy, vocally brilliant young singer with an utterly infectious lead single, a major label has no excuse not to go into promo overdrive. The day after The ArchAndroid was released, I went over to Best Buy to pick up a copy, and was told they were sold out. How many copies were shipped to them?


I shit you not. Apparently, in this post-cutout, iTunes-driven era of the music industry, a major retailer can order two copies of an album from a major label, and not get laughed off the phone. The Best Buy sales clerk told me they ordered only two copies because they weren’t sure the album would be very popular. Fair enough, but what was Bad Boy’s response to all this? Isn’t it their job to ensure they ship more copies than Twisted Fishnets, the Neo-Hair Metal band fronted by the floor manager’s brother-in-law?

Well, it looks like Camp Monáe is now in Salvage Mode, with a just-leaked “Tightrope Wondamix” targeted to Urban markets. It even features critical darling Lupe Fiasco and that dude you kept seeing on the home screen of your iTunes Store, B.o.B. While Jenny Ca$h also rapped on album highlight “Dance or Die”. her flow here is markedly more braggadocious. It’s pretty decent, and (thankfully) not quite suspect enough to make you yell “sellout,” but it does make you want to snatch her from Puff’s clutches before he announces the album of his newly-retooled act, Diddy – Dirty Monáe.

Tightrope (Wondamix, featuring Lupe Fiasco + B.o.B)

But for now, just I’ll just tip on the tightrope.

  1. Neville A. Ross says:

    Want to know one of the reasons why artists like Janelle Monáe get no love, or airplay? I’ll post the article and you can read why:

    Do you know JACK? Sure you do. The ads for Toronto’s newest radio station are all over the subway: “Playing what we want” goes the slogan, with the station’s logo bursting out of a jack-in-the-box, implying that the station’s programmers are out of control! The posters list off what kind of crazy musical combinations you can expect: Tom Petty! Springsteen! The Cars! Meat Loaf! Now, proudly advertising Meat Loaf as a selling point in 2003 may constitute a bold, revolutionary act, but really, JACK FM is just the latest addition to a radio dial littered with microscopically focused niche stations boasting unintentionally ironic slogans that only draw attention to how rigid, formulaic and safe their playlists truly are.

    JACK joins the likes of MIX 99 (whose mainstream-rock mix rarely veers more than a centimeter or two from the middle of the road), Q107 (whose definition of “Classic Rock” is flexible enough to include a regular rotation of Saga records), to the worst offender, 102.1 The Edge, whose conception of edgy music begins with the first Our Lady Peace album, ends with the latest Evanescence single, and wedges every last fake brow-pierced, phony-angst nü-metal mook into the sliver between. The irony is that JACK’s former incarnation, KISS 92.5, while adhering to a top 40 format, managed to achieve something resembling true variety, bouncing from Eminem to Destiny’s Child to Coldplay.

    Now, for those of us who routinely seek musical guidance from college radio or CBC’s Brave New Waves, and who spend more at Rotate This and Soundscapes than on food and shelter, the relentlessly uninspiring state of commercial radio is a topic as tired as the insincerity of televangelists. But as much as we are loath to admit it, radio is still an important cultural arbiter. For the casual music fan — someone who buys maybe 10 CDs a year, simply based on liking something they heard on the radio or Much Music — radio airplay represents validation, in the same way hipsters rely on New York or London to tell them what’s cool. And more often than not, radio assumes the masses are brain-dead automatons incapable of appreciating anything beyond whatever narrowly defined genre parameters the station’s corporate bosses deem most profitable.

    The troubled state of the music industry is often portrayed as a battle between greedy major labels and unscrupulous music fans stealing music online. While the former portrays the latter’s actions as cold-hearted theft, the question is rarely asked: did radio make them do it? The keys to any industry’s growth are brand (in this case, band) loyalty and regeneration through the introduction of new products. The music industry is unique in that it relies on radio (instead of traditional advertising methods) to broadcast new-product information to consumers. Radio is failing them. As a result, those consumers have had to seek alternative outlets — e.g., Kazaa — to get that information.

    Each week eye receives, on average, 75 CD’s submitted for review, ranging from superstar acts like Radiohead down to indie techno artists burning beats off their laptops. This in itself is just a fraction of what’s produced every week. Contrary to the music industry’s doomsday prognostications, the actual amount of music being created has increased as the means of production (laptops, four-track recorders) and distribution (internet mail order, for example) have become more accessible.

    Strangely, radio’s response to this proliferation has been to become more conservative, and in doing so, it does a disservice to the music industry. Retro-minded stations like JACK and Q107 do nothing to promote the continued survival of the industry by playing songs we’ve heard a million times before from records we bought 20 years ago. CanCon regulations, initially devised to expose emerging homegrown talent, can now be satisfied by dropping the Hip or side one of 2112. And given that the careers of most Edge-endorsed alterna-rockers last about as long as their target listener’s first sexual encounter, it’s not exactly inspiring band loyalty among a new generation of music fans. Anyone remember Eve 6? Mudvayne? No wonder kids today would rather buy video games.

    We’re not saying these stations should scrap their Zeppelin records and play nothing but godspeed you! black emperor, but there’s no reason a Neil Young fan wouldn’t appreciate The Flaming Lips, or a Coldplay fan wouldn’t dig the emotional space-pop of Broken Social Scene. There’s also no reason one of these stations couldn’t just up and transform themselves into a station that could play both The Rolling Stones and The Constantines. As JACK (formerly KISS) and CHUM (formerly sports, formerly rock) have made abundantly clear, it takes very little time or thought to repackage.

    Yes, radio is ultimately a business, concerned with the bottom line more than giving unknown artists exposure. But given the limited channels for quality new music on Toronto radio, soon these stations won’t have any nostalgia left to sell.

    My reason for posting this long article is this: Until radio changes, injustices like this will happen.

  2. merq says:

    Thanks, Neville. Great read.
    Do you mind sharing the source?

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