Janelle Monae is someone who refuses to be pinned down. She’s a musician, singer, artist, storyteller, philosopher, and (in her music) a rebellious android. She doesn’t fit into any one mold, but she’s someone who takes us on a journey, that’s for sure.
Monae’s latest album is The Electric Lady, which contains parts four and five of a series of suites that she began in 2007. These conceptual works chronicle the life of Monae’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who shakes up her futuristic world by not complying with the rules of a prejudiced society. Through this persona, Monae is able to tackle issues that are extremely relevant in our present—racism and homophobia among them.
Listening to Monae’s music is therefore more of a venture into dystopia, albeit an enjoyable one.
Just like Monae herself, the music on The Electric Lady can’t be pegged to one genre. There are sweeping orchestral strings on “Suite IV” and “Suite V.” “Ghetto Woman” bounces with jazz synth but ends with Monae rattling off the spoken word. Playful ukulele supports her carefree cries of “smash smash, bang bang” on “Dance Apocalyptic.”
A personal favorite of mine is “Sally Ride,” in which Monae proclaims, “I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon.” This song is expansive and emotional, symphonic and funky, old and new, the best mixture of everything that got me into Monae’s music to begin with.
There are also some notable forays into more R&B-flavored tunes, such as “PrimeTime,” a love ballad featuring Miguel. “What an Experience” is another example, which, with its synthesized handclaps and a second half that dips into reggae, sounds like it was snatched out of the early ’90s. It’s strangely anachronistic to find these songs in Monae’s dark future, so for me, that was where the album faltered slightly.
Overall, Monae continues to take risks with The Electric Lady, creating something important and fresh but still poppy enough to be accessible. The Electric Lady is out now from Atlantic Records.