About love and robots

September 19, 2013

Alexander Billet reviews a new album from a unique and important artist.

THERE'S NO denying that Janelle Monáe is one of the most original voices out there. There are plenty of indicators in her music and creativity that we see elsewhere--a renewed interest in Afrofuturism, the ability to bend genres with ease, a signature visual style and what Colorlines' Jamilah King describes as "her unapologetic embrace of blackness and womanhood." It's not impossible to find these elsewhere, but they're arranged in such a way as to make Monáe very hard to peg.

Her new album The Electric Lady presents a similar challenge. What, exactly, do you make of the skits that appear on the album, emulating a radio show hosted by soul-loving cyborgs, big-upping everyone's favorite android fugitive Cindi Mayweather, and fielding callers who think "robot love is queer?" These sketches are peppered throughout the album by the way.

It would be admittedly harder to nail down if Monáe were only just introducing all this to us. But this is her third release, and all of them have represented another chapter or two in the saga of Mayweather, a robot on the run for falling in love with a human and struggling to save all of android-kind from time-travelling exploiters.

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe (Thomas Böcker)

We also know by now the archetype that Mayweather is supposed to represent. In Monáe's own words: "The Archandroid, Cindi, is the mediator, between the mind and the hand. She's the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. She's like the Archangel in the Bible, and what Neo represents to the Matrix." So yes, it's easier to encapsulate all this. But not by much.

Musically, what we're given here is a complex and varied opus. It's redundant at times and could easily be 25 percent shorter. As with the previous album The ArchAndroid, we're not sure whether it's neo-soul or psychedelia, R&B, jazz or hip-hop; maybe it's all or these or none, but it's impressively cohesive and has an arc. Most importantly, it's a work that in the midst of shrugging cynicism and sound-bite hits, dares you to give yourself over to it, listen to the whole thing all the way through and take the story seriously. If you can do that, then you can probably understand what makes Monáe one of the most important artists to burst into music in recent years.

Review: Music

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady. Bad Boy, 2013.

BY NOW, we've had four months to really absorb the feel of lead single "Q.U.E.E.N." Its stripped-down funk guitar and keys, its provocative themes of queerdom and defiance--not to mention Eykah Badu's notable guest turn--are a fair encapsulation of the album's mode. But hearing it after the album's epic opening credits overture and the swagger of "Give 'Em What They Love" (in which you will squeal at the mere presence of Prince), "Q.U.E.E.N." comes off as even more of an "us against the world" tale than even this bold rap might suggest:

I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?
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.
Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
Well I'm gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman.

Bookended further through the album is "Ghetto Woman," a glittering, polyrhythmic celebration of female strength, clearly springing from Monáe's own working class upbringing in Kansas City:

When people put you down, yeah way down and you feel
Like you're alone
Let love be your guide
You were built to last through any weather
Oh Ghetto Woman hold on to your dreams
And all your great philosophies
You're the reason I believe in me, for real.

These, of course, aren't so much the fictional stories of Cindi Mayweather's life as Monáe's own. And yet they're also Mayweather's, and Monáe's as Mayweather's, and vice versa. Add in the skits, and we're presented with a concept work that shifts back and forth between autobiography and fantasy, with such ease that the two really become one and the same.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, there's a rather clear parallel here between Mayweather's story and the story of Monáe's life over the past several years. She comes onto the scene, people have no clue what to make of her, but they know they dig her effortlessly righteous vibe; now everyone seems to know her and is talking about her, even though they still aren't quite sure what it is she represents.

The inkling, however, is that she's facing down some very real limits with which any oppressed person is well acquainted. (And it's worth noting the easiness that Monáe has when speaking of oppression; not as if it's an academic concept she's trying to force into reality, but as just a hard, honest fact of life.)

WILL SHE succeed? That depends. Cindi Mayweather has about as much a chance of taking down her enemies, the forces keeping her from her love and all android-kind down, as Harry Potter did in taking down Voldemort. Which is to say it's up to the author. Monáe herself is certainly aware that a work of art won't break down the boundaries in any real way. Queer-bashers, misogynists and bigots will certainly get their hackles up at Monáe's existence, but they won't be shut up just by her music. Whether the music itself is successful is a different question.

At her concerts, Monáe is known to hand out copies of her "Ten Droid Commandments," which encourage the readers to embrace their individuality. The trope of a mass-produced robot grappling with identity is practically as old as sci-fi itself, and is put to a fairly contrived use here. But given the overall thrust of Mayweather's story and Monáe's music, it's not hard to see what message she is trying to send to her young audience. Which, demographically, is the most multi-racial and sexually tolerant generation in recent history, and is probably also the most neglected in several decades.

That's what makes The Electric Lady work. It's a composition of fantasy that is simultaneously grounded not just in one specific moment in time, but several. It's clearly planting its flag in a moment begging for people to assert a radically intersectional identity.

And yet the album's subtle nods to the experiments and explosions in soul, funk and R&B of the 1970s (explosions largely driven by the upsurge in Black Power and the general flourishing of movements in that decade) also root it in an oppositional stance. It's something Lady Gaga, with her Little Monsters and burqas, tries and largely fails to do, if only because she ends up placing more emphasis on herself than the tribulations of her audience.

In the end, the harkening of Afro-futurism and the comparisons to George Clinton and Sun Ra aren't for nothing. Perhaps the most significant and uplifting thing about Janelle Monáe, Cindi Mayweather and The Electric Lady is that they confide to us that there is a future for the freaks. It may be a future of struggle, hard-scrabble and staring down a faceless, all-knowing opponent, but at least we can face it in style.

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