Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review: Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

I'm not sure people can really understand how audacious Janelle Monae's debut album The ArchAndroid really is. Part science fiction epic, part religious fable, it deftly dances across genres, while remaining wholly unique and coherent over 18 tracks. For a young, female R&B (I hesitate to call her that) artist to fully realize such an ambitious concept album is so rare that I struggle to come up with something to compare it to, and I think that's exactly what Monae is after here.

Alter-ego concept albums are a tired song and dance in Hip-hop. From Eminem nearly a decade ago, to the Beyonce/Sasha Fierce tug-of-war, it seems obligatory that a popular artist undergo some identity struggle and traipse it out as a concept album. The problem with these are that they are nearly always half-baked and never feel sincere. They are more acting audition than album, and it shows. Oh, you use a deeper voice for your angry alter-ego? How novel. You have a song about not recognizing yourself in the mirror? Poor you. Maybe now Janelle Monae's album has a bit more context. Not only does she have no "cred" whatsoever (that would allow her to try something this insane and not ruin her career if it tanked), she is completely and relentlessly in character here as Cindi Mayweather, the messianic android (seriously). She goes for it with an indomitable swagger that will beat you into submission if it can't charm your pants off.

The word "eclectic" seems to exist solely to describe this record. There are no fewer than 50 instrumental credits on the wikipedia entry for The ArchAndroid, and if I listened hard enough I could probably pick them all out. If that isn't enough, Monae's vocal gymnastics should probably count for another ten. From the DJ scratches that transition effortlessly into a caffeinated electric strum and a piano run of Faster that brings to mind a chrome old-time microphone in a smokey lounge to the sleepy synths of Cold War that aggressively lurch into Outkast-style frantic kick-drums and back-up coos. The homages here are dizzying. There's a song in which Monae hauntingly sings backwards that does not feel out of place (no small feat), followed by the absolutely jaw-dropping Oh, Maker that scales back the arrangements and production to allow for Monae's staggering Mariah Carey impression. The influences here are many, and Monae adapts like a chameleon to meet every one, all the while oozing the same brazen confidence. I'll be damned if I'm going to be the one to tell her otherwise.

If history is any indication, The ArchAndroid will likely join Sufjan Stevens "Illinois", David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and The Beatles "Sargent Pepper" into the epic and flawless concept album pantheon. There is truly something here for any taste, any mood, or any species for that matter.

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