Janelle Monae impressed many with her EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite and now she returns with her first full-length release The ArchAndroid. Monae tackles a wide variety of styles on this release from R & B/soul to rock, pop, and electronic. While it could have been a disjointed mishmash of an album, instead it's wonderful from start to finish. The ArchAndroid is endlessly creative and marks the official arrival of a unique voice in music.
The ArchAndroid continues the sci-fi concepts found on Metropolis: The Chase Suite, but does so in a more subtle way. It's not required for someone to have heard that EP in order to enjoy this new release. The album is split into two suites with each one beginning with a classical music overture. The songs flow smoothly from one to the other, meaning that this album is best listened to in order. However, the suite structure frees the listener from listening to the entire album in one sitting.
If there's one word to describe Janelle Monae musically, it would be fearless. She is absolutely comfortable doing whatever she wants to do on this album whether it turns out great or not. The first proper song on the album is "Dance or Die," featuring poet/artist Saul Williams. Monae only sings in the background and during the chorus on this song. For the rest of it, she adopts a speedy flow somewhere between rap and spoken word poetry. It's a gutsy move for her vocal introduction to listeners to be something like that.
Monae takes more chances like that throughout the album. "Come Alive (War of The Roses)" and "Mushrooms & Roses" are back-to-back rock songs. Both tracks draw their influences from classic rock as opposed to what's popular today. "Come Alive" is the more upbeat of the two with Monae in full rock singer mode. "Mushrooms & Roses" is more of a standout with its stoned-out feel, vocal distortions, and guitar solo. "Make The Bus" featuring Of Montreal goes in a completely different direction. It's a nice piece of electronic pop with a little bit of a Prince vibe and high-pitched vocals.
A few songs use the sounds of the 1960s for inspiration. "Sir Greendown" has a mellow feel a hippie could love. "57821" featuring Deep Cotton sounds like a folk song from that era and has some lovely harmonies. "Oh Maker" nicely melds retro and modern elements. When the song starts with acoustic guitar, you think it's going in one direction, but instead it turns into a wonderful, more modern soul track.
There is more to Monae than just risk-taking and nods to old-school music. The kinetic style she introduced on tracks like "Many Moons" and "Violet Stars Happy Hunting" from her EP is also present on The ArchAndroid. The tracks that exemplifies this best is "Cold War." Although this track glides over pounding "B.O.B."-style drums, what resonates more are the lyrics: "If you wanna be free / Below the ground's the only place to be / 'Cause in this life / You spend time running from depravity."
The ArchAndroid is an excellent debut album and one that defies expectations. It contains multiple styles yet it has a unified vision. It draws influences from classic music but doesn't sound like a pale imitation. It draws your attention with the first listen but reveals more and more with subsequent listens. It has tons of creativity but never feels inaccessible or pretentious. It is one of the best albums released so far this year, and you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not checking it out.