It’s not everyday that something comes along that sounds so new, it makes the most eclectic music of the past sound ordinary. That was the impact Janelie Monae had on the music scene, although not initially. As a strong supporter of the arts, Monae helped found the Wonderland Arts Society to nurture like-minded alternative artist and musicians. She took this creative energy and applied to her first recording, a mildly successful but mostly overlooked EP entitled The Audition. That EP was intended to be the first in an arc of four conceptual albums.
R&B music was not quite stagnate, but was being dominated by sound alike dancing divas with rap cameos. Ironically when Sean Combs, one of the biggest proponents of the new corporate R&B sound, notice Monae, he signed her to his new label Bad Boy Records. It was from that platform that her vision would be realized with promotion worthy of her talent. Fortunately for us, Combs got out-of-the-way and allowed Monae’s vision to flourish.
While The Audition made a very small impact on the R&B charts (as alternative R&B often does), it would be her first LP that would revamp the concept and make innovation and wild experimentation part of the normal fabric of the high-profile R&B scene. If only for a while.
The 2010 release of The ArchAndroid would wrap the story arch into three suites on one album. Janelle Monae Robinson would assume the persona of Cindy Wayweather a big cropped afro wearing android from the distant future trying to escape her oppressors who are bent on dismantling her from falling in love with a human. By borrowing imagery from the 1927 film Metropolis, Monae was able to create a detailed and lavish tapestry in which to frame her equally complicated music. As in sci-fi, The ArchAndroid uses a futuristic narrative as a backdrop for songs about our fear of immigrants, computers and things we generally too lazy or stupid to understand on our own.
In keeping with a cinematic theme The ArchAndroid starts off with ‘Suite II Overture’ a classical intro that sounds like part of a grand score. It’s when the overture ends that the album starts to sound unconventional. Nearly every song is a unique blend of vaguely vintage yet contemporary sounding futurism. If that sounds confusing, one listen would clearly show why this album defied labels and was much bigger than the R&B label it was marketed with.
For all the complex juxtaposition of art deco and futurist styles, it would be the vintage James Brown tinged hit singles ”Tightrope’ and ‘Cold War’ that most people would recognize Monae by. In actuality there were two distinct Janelle Monae. One with the classic soul vintage sound and the other with the innovative mash-ups like the bouncy Delite-like ‘Wonderland’ or the Carpenters meets Janet Jackson feel of ‘Oh Maker’.
I could go on about this album, but it’s long list of awards including multiple Grammys and accolades from both the press and public proves that The Archandroid one of the best albums of the year if not decade. The dense multi-faceted nature of the albums production means that with headphones, nuances reveal themselves that may have been missed before.
The ArchAndroid may be the first R&B album since Parliment’s Mothership Connection to use quirky sci-fi themes and still manage to score commercially and influence other artist. R&B music became a bit more accepting to non traditional influences, but Monae still remains a small island of innovation in a sea of mainstream R&B blanity.