Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
(Atlantic Records)
Words: David Amidon

Janelle Monáe is freakishly talented, influenced by a fiercely diverse range of sounds, and much like the criminally over-appreciated Lady Ga Ga, she aspires to be more than a ‘typical pop star.’ In 2010, this apparently means crafting an elaborate allegory through four suites of music (the fourth is still on deck, the first was her 2007 EP Metropolis Suite that dissects both the entertainment industry and American at large. By telling the story of an android on the run from the powers that be after finding love with a human, Monáe weaves in plenty of snappy insight into current human relationships on Earth and the fallacies of celebrity in the 24- hour news cycle.

The music of any concept album has to live up to the image behind it, and The ArchAndroid is sort of a mixed bag in that regard. While Monáe has an open ear, her album takes some turns that simply don’t compliment the her ideas. After the high-energy and immaculately sequenced opening medley, the following track, “Sir Greendown”, appears out of nowhere with a slow dirge that cuts the pace completely. It seems like Monae runs out of steam, causing a suspension of the album’s continuity. Listeners can detect a break in the flow several times, particularly when Suite III is introduced. The choppy nature of the album can draw the listener out of the experience, which is a shame, considering the powerful impact of the opening sequence. The twofer of “Faster” and “Locked Inside” may be the best example of pop music I’ve heard in 2010, made up of equal parts Lady GaGa bombasity and cool, Bad Boy soul. Either song could have a chance to hook radio listeners. Meanwhile, “Neon Valley Street” combines Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” with a hint of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a whole lot of old school Philadelphia soul for a surefire hit during stoned headphone sessions.

Which is why it’s strange that Monáe seems so eager to just wear her influences on her sleeve rather than fully adapt them to her aesthetic. The back-masked “Neon Gumbo” (another momentum stealer) can’t help but sound like tracks from the similarly off-kilter Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea, “Oh, Maker” is a great ode to ‘60s psychedelic pop and “57821” is a shocking, late-in-the- show Celtic folk song. “Mushrooms & Roses” has a typical Black Moth Super Rainbow title, and more surprisingly, sounds like a typical BMSR slow jam. “Make the Bus”, a collaboration with of Montreal that may as well entirely lack Monáe’s unnoticeable contribution, goes too far with this hero worship. The song sounds like a Sunlandic Twins castaway and fits in with nothing on the album, coming off as gratuitous and excessive rather than playful and charming as intended.

It’s a shame that these problems plague the record, because Monáe has a beautiful voice. She can adapt her vocal range to any style, with more personality than most other female vocalists; it’s not a stretch to say she may be the most gifted pop songstress since Christina Aguilera. The difference is Monáe’s willingness to produce a wide range of her music. Pop singers like Christina, on the other hand, mainly save their voices for ballads while becoming sex symbols in the interim. Monáe opens the album with a double time rap on “Dance or Die” and pulls of raging Sleater-Kinney garage rock on “Come Alive”. Her union with Bad Boy is somewhat unexplicable, but Puffy is also courting underground hip-hop icon Jay Electronica. Perhaps Monáe is the beginning of a shift in the pop consciousness, away from bubblegum and fluff towards artsier days. The ArchAndroid is a flawed record, but it’s also an incredibly listenable one and by all accounts a harbinger of the future pop messiah to come. To paraphrase an old saying, what should one expect from the girl that can do everything?

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