Janelle Monáe Robinson is an intimidatingly talented auteur. As a musician, she’s a capable singer, rapper, songwriter, producer, and dancer, as well as a record label owner. She also makes conceptual albums; her first EP and albums are based around her android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, while she has a distinctive visual aesthetic, wearing a tuxedo and with coiffured hair. But her musical career’s perhaps been less productive that fans would have hoped to date, as she’s also spent time acting and modelling.
Monáe was born to working class parents in Kansas City in 1985. After studying drama in New York City, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she formed the Wondaland Arts Society with other young talents. Monáe appeared on Outkast’s Idlewild, and attracted the interest of Puff Daddy, who signed her, and she released her acclaimed debut album, The ArchAndroid, in 2010.
Monáe’s sci-fi concepts invite comparisons with other Afro-futurists like George Clinton and Sun Ra, while musically her influences include Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Outkast. She’s covered a lot of musical ground over her three albums to date – each of her records has its own individual flavour. Her discography to date is almost flawless, and she’s clearly a major talent who should be remembered as one of the best artists of her generation.
Janelle Monáe Album Reviews
Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (EP)
Janelle’s Monáe’s first official release was this EP, the initial part of a proposed seven part Metropolis suite. The original edition had five tracks, but a 2008 special edition also included ‘Mr President’ and a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. It’s a fascinating first effort – a lot of Monáe’s ideas already feel fully formed and compelling, but like a lot of EPs it doesn’t do its job as well as a full album and it’s not as essential as her full length albums.
Her song-writing doesn’t feel fully developed either – ‘Sincerely, Jane’ is my favourite song here. The most memorable track is the opening ‘The March of the Wolfmasters’, which spells out the Metropolis plot:
Good morning cyber-boys and cyber-girls,
I’m happy to announce we have a star crossed winner in today’s sweepstakes
Android number 57821, otherwise known as Cyndi Mayweather
Has fallen madly in love with a human Anthony Greendown
And you know the rules she’s now scheduled for immediate disassembly
Bounty hunters, you can find her in the neon valley street district
Elsewhere, Monáe’s already displaying plenty of stylistic range – ‘Sincerely, Jane’ mixes turntables with 1930s swing, while ‘Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!!’ is guitar pop.
It’s not as indispensable as her full length albums, but Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) is an assured debut from Monáe, and it’s worth visiting if you enjoy her other work.
The Metropolis EP hinted at greatness for Monáe but even so, debut The ArchAndroid is a remarkably assured piece of work. Monáe’s brimming with ideas, and she’s trying something different with almost every track – R&B is the base, but this album goes everywhere, and is all the better for it. Monáe has stated that “Overall, this music came from various corners of the world—from Turkey to Prague to Atlanta—places we were on tour.” Conceptually, The ArchAndroid continues the narrative of Cindi Mayweather, and it’s the second and third parts of the seven part Metropolis saga.
The ArchAndroid covers a staggering amount of stylistic ground – ‘Mushrooms and Roses’ recalls 1960s psychedelia, ‘Wondaland’ is breezy electro pop, the lengthy ‘Babopbye Ya’ sounds like an Enrio Morricone soundtrack, while ‘Locked Inside’ could have come from a 1970s Stevie Wonder record. Monáe also makes good use of guest stars – mentor Big Boi from Outkast appears on the breakthrough single ‘Tightrope’, while Deep Cotton add ethereal and beautiful backing voices to ‘57821’.
The ArchAndroid is a wildly confident and inventive record that’s a contender for one of the best of its decade.
The Electric Lady
Monae’s second studio album continued her Cindi Mayweather saga, with the fourth and fifth instalments in the story. It’s not as eclectic as The ArchAndroid, much more like a regular R&B album. The second half drags a little, and it’s arguably a little long, but there are plenty of great moments. A lot of the best moments come from guest stars – Prince guests on ‘Give ‘Em What They Love’, Erkyah Badu on ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, Solange on the title track, and Miguel on ‘PrimeTime’, and they’re all among the most memorable tracks.
My favourite track though, is ‘Dance Apocalyptic’, with its memorable “Smash, smash, bang, bang. Don’t stop! Chalanga-langa-lang!” hook. The smooth groove of closer ‘What An Experience’ is another album highlight, while the elegant ‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ feels like a 1970s Stevie Wonder album track.
The interludes are a little distracting, and the first half is stronger than the second, but The Electric Lady is still an embarrassment of riches.
Monáe’s third album is her most surprising career change to date – instead of hiding behind her Cindi Mayweather alter ego, she’s released a personal, mainstream R&B album. At times it certainly feels like a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency – “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back” is an obvious nod to Trump’s oft-quoted admittance of sexual harassment. Often she suggests hedonism as an antidote to America’s issues – ‘Screwed’ is half sex jam and half political protest, although she’s also protesting social justice issues on the grand closer ‘Americans’. While there’s plenty of Monáe’s own self in her Cindi Mayweather persona, it’s still startling to hear her in first person mode.
Musically, Dirty Computer is closer to the mainstream than her previous records, but even five seconds into the opening track there’s a curve ball, with Brian Wilson adding his gorgeous, wordless backing vocals to the title track. The stacked gospel voices in the opening of ‘Americans’ are another bold choice, while he synths and rhythm guitar of ‘Make Me Feel’ could be straight off of a 1980s Prince album. The low key ‘Django Jane’ pivots effortlessly on Monáe’s undeniable vocal charisma and fascinating lyrics. and even the generic ‘I Got The Juice’ is carried by Monáe. The highlight is the propulsive ‘Screwed’, which mixes hedonism and political protest with a killer guitar riff.
Dirty Computer is sometimes patchy and sometimes sails too close to the mainstream, but at the same time it’s a riveting record – Monáe sells it on personality alone, and there are plenty of terrific songs.
Ten Favourite Janelle Monáe Songs
Mushrooms and Roses
What An Experience