The music world’s favorite sci-fi songstress is back. Janelle Monáe, who dabbles in everything from neo-soul to experimental, released her second studio album, The Electric Lady, on Tuesday.
Though Monáe has been making ripples since 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite, she first achieved mainstream success on The ArchAndroid, her 2010 effort that featured singles such as “Tightrope” and “Cold War.” Since then, major cosmetic labels such as Covergirl and major publications Essence and Vibe have plastered her unabashedly independent look all over commercial advertisements and magazine spreads.
Needless to say, this growing attention is not just the result of Monáe’s innovative musical stylings. Instead, her modern take on the afro-bouffant and signature tuxedo uniform have earned her recognition for her unwillingness to achieve success based on her body type — though in videos such as 2008’s “Many Moons,” she certainly proved she had the physicality and choreography to keep up with dance sensations like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake.
In addition to her distinctive visual presentation, Monáe stands out by incorporating narrative-driven plots into her albums. Her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, started exploring the futuristic romance between human Anthony Greendown and android Cindi Mayweather. Monáe takes listeners many decades into the future, where relationships between humans and androids are strictly forbidden. And as bounty hunters chase down Mayweather in order to separate her from Greendown, she tells her story in CD installments — all of which listeners are privy to.
Now, The Electric Lady continues Suites IV and V of Monáe’s sci-fi saga. Interludes such as “The Chrome Shoppe” and “Good Morning Midnight” feature robotic disc jockeys “getting [their] chrome polished” and anonymous callers who just want to give a shoutout to “the droid rebel alliance.”
Die-hard fans will soon realize, however, that this third effort represents a slight departure from the artist’s previous releases. Though Monáe usually delivers an experimental mix that can feature everything from rock to R&B, The Electric Lady features a more unified sound. Summer teasers such as “Q.U.E.E.N. (feat. Erykah Badu)” and “Dance Apocalyptic” set the tone for the album’s funk-infused elements, and themes of self-empowerment echo through many of the tracks.
“The ArchAndroid focused on self-realization: realizing your superpower and the things that you’re capable of doing,” Monáe said in an August interview with BUST magazine. “With The Electric Lady, we’re talking about self-actualization: being the change you want to see … The album deals with a new breed of woman.”
The Electric Lady kicks off with “Suite IV Electric Overture,” one of Monáe’s standard instrumental openings that features heavy guitar riffs and ominous strings, just to prime listeners for the album’s moody yet uplifting overtones. The album then launches into “Givin’ Em What They Love” (feat. Prince), a modern take on the funk standards of the 1980s. Though she’s delivering verses right next to Prince’s famous falsetto, Monáe holds her own against this music icon. Her throaty yet calculated “yeahs” and “alrights” prevent her from letting “The Artist Formerly Known As” steal the spotlight.
But Prince isn’t the only superstar Monáe teams up with for The Electric Lady. Solange Knowles, Esperanza Spalding and Miguel also make appearances on the album. Spalding gets Monáe to slow the pace a little on the jazzy “Dorothy Dandrige Eyes,” and Miguel delivers a hazy vocal line on the light-hearted R&B ballad, “Primetime.” As she performs effortlessly with some of today’s biggest artists, Monáe proves she’s not just the girl from Kansas City anymore.
Even among a series of noteworthy tracks, a few knockouts stand out. “We Were Like Rock and Roll” could easily become a single with its catchy chorus, expressive lyrics and wailing electric guitar line. Likewise, “Look Into My Eyes,” which calls to mind The ArchAndroid’s “Sir Greendown,” features chilling harmonies and a haunting otherworldly vibe ripe for slow dancing. The track also offers a higher, cleaner vocal sound from Monáe, who softly sings, “May our love be so brave and so true,” just before the song fades out.
In addition to the emotionally vulnerable lyrics on tracks such as “Look Into My Eyes” and “It’s Code,” Monáe also delivers confident rap stylings and spoken word on numbers such as “Ghetto Woman” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes.”
“But even when she felt like she couldn’t, she carried on,” raps Monáe on “Ghetto Woman.” “She couldn’t imagine both of her daughters here all alone / Before the tuxedos and black and white every day / I used to watch my mama get down on her knees and pray.”
Equally female-empowering and fast-paced monologues appear on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which showed fans that the talented singer had multiple sets of vocal talents with its release last May.
“You can take my wings, but I’m still gon’ fly,” raps Monáe on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which defines Monáe’s confident persona for the rest of the album. “But even when you edit me/ the booty don’t lie.”
And Monáe certainly doesn’t lie. The Electric Lady represents a major milestone for an artist who has already earned Grammy nominations and media attention for her energetic dance performances. The 19-track album satisfies fans who have been anticipating a worthy follow-up to The ArchAndroid, and even with some small changes to her style, die-hard listeners will have a hard time denying the cohesive masterpiece that is The Electric Lady.
Monáe can’t stop “givin’ us what we love.”
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