Rec Room: Janelle Monáe, The Archandroid

The first time I saw Janelle Monáe perform, she took my breath away. I don’t think anyone in the crowd at the Of Montreal show had heard of her, but the minute she bounced onto the stage in her crop-legged, jacketless tux and afro pompadour, we were hooked. As she wailed through the first song, treating the small Bowery Ballroom crowd as if she were performing for an audience of thousands, I heard someone behind me go “Holy shit!” Each and every one of us had fallen in love.

The wait for her full-length debut, The Archandroid  (Suites II and III), seemed endless, and while I swooned over the single “Tightrope” (not to mention the accompanying video), the album itself comes as a bit of a surprise. Monáe’s EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite is fairly cohesive in terms of style—an Outkast-tinged r&b glam sampler of the singer’s considerable talent. And though Archandroid keeps up the narrative thread of Monáe’s dystopian sci-fi alter ego Cindi Mayweather, that’s where the continuity stops.

With help from an eclectic group of special guests including Saul Williams, Big Boi and Kevin Barnes and citing influences from Parliament-Funkadelic to Disney films, Monáe offers up a veritable smorgasbord of sound. Want to hear her rap?  Check out opener “Dance or Die.” Bombastic classical? There are two orchestral overtures to introduce the album’s titular suites. How about a ‘60s-style British folk ballad? Here’s “Sir Greendown” for you! Just want to hear her formidable pipes at work? Give “Cold War” a listen.

I meant to review this album when it came out, but it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate what Monáe is trying to do. At first I was somewhat let down by The Archandroid, finding some songs too predictable (“Locked Inside”), or too strange (“Make the Bus”). The constant changes in style were jarring, and as much as I enjoyed many of the tracks, I felt like the album didn’t work as a whole. But man, what a gutsy move. The album was a joint release between Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records and Monáe’s own Wondaland Arts Society, the result of which is a truly independent album with a slick, mainstream production. After being signed by Combs’ Monáe could easily have morphed into another anonymous r&b diva. But it’s clear that this is one performer who will not compromise her vision, however schizophrenic it may be, to gain widespread approval. Should I have expected anything less from someone who paints onstage and calls her LP an “emotion-picture experience?”

Janelle Monáe is something special– that much is clear, and I have nothing but respect for her efforts. She has such an unwavering commitment to herself as an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed, and if I don’t completely enjoy everything she’s doing, somehow I feel it’s due to my lack of imagination, rather than any failing on her part. The Archandroid is nothing if not ambitious, and suggests a world of possibility in the future works of its creator.

Stand-out tracks: “Faster,” “Tightrope,” “Babopbye Ya”

Check out the album on www.jmonae.com

And the kick-ass video for Tightrope after the break:

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