Many of us have waited almost three years since Janelle Monae's EP Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase was released. Along the way, we've been thrilled at her live shows by her unbridled energy. She's someone who leaves it all on the stage. But, I always wondered how she'd follow the EP up. Could she carry the whole Cindi Mayweather storyline through an entire album? Would she? More importantly, should we brace for a big letdown?
Let's dispense with the last question first: There are no letdowns on her new album, The ArchAndroid. In fact, she takes all the promise she showed on the EP and makes good on it. The ArchAndroid is a largely upbeat, exuberant 18-song opus on which she draws inspiration from the past, but looks forward with what we've come to know as her characteristic optimism. It's great to hear an album that's hopeful. It's not just the head nod-inducing beats. There's a throwback quality to the album, an Esquivel, lounge-y kinda vibe. It's a great example of how an artist can incorporate music from an earlier era, without shamelessly copying it. Esquivel was known for "space age bachelor pad music" that was popular in the late 50s and early 60s. At that time, there was a sense, among other things, that we were entering a new age of progress and the future was wide open. It's that sense of possibility that suffuses The ArchAndroid.
What's most exciting about this album is the fact that it in no way underestimates the audience. There's nothing least common denominator about it. Instead, we're all invited into Janelle's world and she assumes that we'll find our way around it because it's one that she's made real for us.
We hear an evolution of Janelle Monae on this album. She doesn't rely so much on the "alien from outerspace" persona on this album, as much as she stretches out and builds on it. Musical quotations link the EP and the album, such as the track "Neon Gumbo," and the title of the track "Neon Valley Street," which was referenced in "Violet Stars Happy Hunting" on Metropolis. But there's no overt references to Chasemasters and Cindi being hunted down because of her love for a human.
18 songs, yes, but The ArchAndroid never gets boring. In Suite II, "Tightrope" has grown on me and, like "Faster" and "Dance or Die," is a great–but not over the top–jam. Come Aiive is a Screamin' Jay Hawkins-esque romp. In Suite III, "57821" evokes a Matrix-like world with its ethereal vocals and talk of saving the world because "you're the one". One of the most moving songs on the album "Say You'll Go" is a fresh take on true love, and brings in an interpolation of Debussy's "Claire de Lune" as a beautiful, closing touch. The album ends with "BabopbyeYa", which finishes with an orchestral swell of violins. And that's the thing about this album, it succeeds not because it's reaching for the bombast of boom-bap, but because it's after something more grand and majestic.
Compare this to Erykah Badu's much hyped New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh. Self-indulgent, cliche-ridden, full of half-baked ideas and pedestrian beats, you end of wishing the Ankh stayed wherever it was and never came back. Despite what contributor Jen Williams had to say about the album, there seems to be an over-reliance on vibe and not enough focus on songs. I feel like I've heard the music (if not also the lyrics) somewhere before. There's no fire in this album at all. And, unfortunately, Erykah and Janelle will be on tour together this summer. And in this regard, I feel bad for Erykah. Why? No headliner wants to get spanked by the opening act every night, and that's what's going to happen unless Erykah musters some intensity and gives a great show. Given how energetic Janelle's performances are, it could be a long tour for Erykah.
The liner notes to The ArchAndroid contain a letter that continues Janelle's mythology. Part of it contains the following questions:
Is there a world called
Metropolis waiting for us in
the future? A world full of
elves and dwarves? Humans
and androids? Clones and
And most importantly, if the ArchAndroid does
exist…can she truly save us?
No one person's going to save us. It doesn't matter if the "us" we're talking about America or just black folks. No, Janelle doesn't have to save us: That's too much to ask of any one person. She's already done her job because she's an inspiration. Look: A nerdy, confident and cool black girl creates this fully formed sci-fi fantasy world and doesn't even try to sell it by shaking her ass, a mainstay for most commercial black female artists. Here it's all about imagination, and if this album performs well in the marketplace ('cause that matters in capitalist society), then we could be talking about a paradigm shift. It could be a shift in the idea of what's "marketable" when it comes to black artists. We've been battering at these gates for years, and finally there are some serious cracks in them. If Janelle does well, then maybe other artists who also carry the flag of the new black imagination–Tamar-Kali, MuthaWit, Game Rebellion, Leila Adu, Shelley Nicole, the list goes on– will have a better chance to succeed.
So we can hope.
In the meantime, we have The ArchAndroid, an album that sends a great message to black kids everywhere that it's okay to live in your head. Janelle Monae may have started out as a "cybergirl without a face, a heart or a mind," but now her humanity shines through. And that transformation is thrilling to hear.