Album Review: Janelle Monáe, “The Electric Lady”

The Electric Lady

When Janelle Monáe’s debut LP The ArchAndroid dropped in 2010, it introduced the world to a consummate artist with little time for labels. Her tuxedoed stage persona and omnipresent pompadour challenged norms for female self-presentation in the world of popular music. The record itself upended expectations for an R&B newcomer, taking no prisoners with a rich afro-futurist concept more characteristic, both in its scope and its sheer musicality, of a much more firmly established artist. And her startling versatility, bouncing effortlessly between classic pop, R&B balladry, progressive rock, funked-up punk, and folky psychedelia, brazenly defied her listeners to pigeonhole her.

The Electric Lady, comprising Suites IV and V of Monáe’s seven-part Metropolis sequence, is, at 67 minutes, one minute shorter than The ArchAndroid, but it’s no less ambitious. For this installment in the saga of android-cum-resistance-leader-cum-Messiah Cindi Mayweather, Monáe leaves some of the genre explorations behind in order to dig more deeply into explicitly African American musical traditions. There’s still plenty of diversity, however, as a glance at the guest list indicates: Prince, Solange Knowles, Erykah Badu, Miguel, and Esperanza Spalding occupy vastly different artistic space. But Monáe is comfortable working alongside them all, synthesizing reggae, smooth R&B, hip-hop, Motown, West Coast jazz, and electric blues with a gleeful catholicity and a singular vision that call to mind no lesser luminary than the mighty Stevland Judkins himself.

Monáe’s renewed focus on black music is reflective of The Electric Lady’s unabashed Girl Power, Black Power ethos. From the afro-feminist anthem “Q.U.E.E.N.”:

They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City…

And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal, you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?

Themes of freedom permeate The Electric Lady: freedom from economic oppression, freedom from sexual repression, freedom from racism, freedom from self-doubt. Far from growing overbearing, Monáe’s politics invest her music with the revolutionary fervor of a young black woman from Kansas City in an era of Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin. The revolution may not be televised, but you will be able to dance to it. Moreover, the political is always personal, as The Electric Lady’s multiple fine love songs (“It’s Code,” “We Were Rock & Roll,” “What an Experience”) and hymns to spiritual empowerment (“Victory”) attest. “I’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes,” she sings on the lattermost cut, one of many highlights. “’Cause to be victorious/You must find glory in the little things.”

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Monáe said, “I want to redefine beauty and goals for young women. It’s about breaking down stereotypes, fighting against oppression, trying to save the world.” That’s a tall order for anybody, even a young, gifted, black woman like Ms. Monáe. But to listen to The Electric Lady is to believe once more in the power of music to change the world, even if that world is a thousand years in the future. “What an Experience” indeed.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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1 Response to Album Review: Janelle Monáe, “The Electric Lady”

  1. Pingback: Tom’s Top 10 of 2013 | Revolutions Per Minute

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