Album Review: Janelle Monae, 'The Electric Lady'

by Jill Riley

Janelle Monae's 'Electric Lady' album cover.
Janelle Monae's 'Electric Lady' album cover. (© Bad Boy Records)

Back in 2010, I had my mind blown with the introduction to a new name on the scene: Janelle Monae seemed to come out of nowhere with the release of The ArchAndroid. I was hooked on songs like "Tightrope" and "Cold War." Who was this tuxedo-wearing, pompadour-sporting powerhouse of a voice? How could she have possibly popped out of nowhere with this ambitious, futuristic, heady, concept record? Prince was a fan, she had the support of Big Boi and Puff Daddy; it just seemed like I had missed something.

But I hadn't. She wasn't yet a household name and had spent a number of years building up support in the music industry, building up her image — and it just happened to be the time for Janelle Monae to make her grand entrance into the music scene.

Fast-forward to present day, 2013. As I listen to the next installment of her very ambitious, Metropolis-themed concept series, The Electric Lady, I feel as though I'm trying to understand the story arc. If you're not familiar, Metropolis is a pretty epic science fiction movie from 1927 — basically the first sci-fi movie ever. The story is about a futuristic city that's divided by the powerful rich people and the poor people who do all the hard labor to keep the city powered (hmm, sound familiar?). Janelle Monae took this theme and turned it into this very elaborate, multi-album concept; a seven-part suite, if you will. I still feel as though I'm oversimplifying her story creation and her concept; in fact, I know I am.

If you haven't been following the Janelle Monae story, this whole concept/idea started with an EP called Metropolis: Suite I. The ArchAndroid followed as suites II and III. The new record, The Electric Lady, continues the story with suites IV and V, and we have yet to know what record or works will represent suites VI and VII and how the story will end. Will I fully understand her mission by the time the conclusion comes?

I had to decide something when I put The Electric Lady into my CD player: I had to stop concentrating so hard on Janelle Monae's cerebral, abstract, heady theme, and just listen to the songs for what they are — which to me, quite loosely bear relation to her ideas related to a dystopian society.

The Electric Lady features a number of guest vocalists: Erykah Badu on "Q.U.E.E.N."; Solange (who is Beyonce's sister) on "Electric Lady"; Miguel on "Primetime"; Esperanza Spalding on "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes"; and the highlight of the record, an appearance by Prince on "Givin' Em What They Love."

You can keep Janelle Monae's inspiration for her art in the back of your head while enjoying The Electric Lady, but don't get lost in it. Or else you'll just be lost.

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