ArchAndroid - Janelle Monae, 2010 (Part I)
2010 was a pretty incredible year for music. And I know it's a little late for any best-of blogs, but part of my hiatus here has had to do with an onslaught of good new music to listen to. It's time to pay homage to one of those distractions, and although there are several to choose from, none of the records from last year have demanded attention like Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid. It's insanely ballsy, diverse in genre and mood, and yet cohesive in both its bizarre concept and polished production.
The album needs a rather large introduction since the only real way to listen to it is within the context of its concept. The ArchAndroid is composed of 2 Suites, each propelled and punctuated by an overture (at tracks 1 and 12). This is why I've decided to break this blog into two parts, and will discuss each Suite separately. Also, there's just way too much to say!
There is a serious overlap of music with drama as Monae theatrically presents the suites (actually the 2nd and 3rd of what will be a total of 4) as work of the futuristic character of Janelle Monae, who was forced to leave her home year of 2719, and is imprisoned as a patient in Palace of the Dogs in the present. Much of her music regards her sort of alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android (and THE Archandroid whom the album is named for) built with Monae's DNA who is a messianic figure of Metropolis. Yes, a somewhat complicated story. But one that adds layers to the listening experience as The ArchAndroid unites Science Fiction to Reality and Past to Future. Even as the story presents itself as distant from our world, the liner notes name inspirations for each track to be familiar icons of our present and past culture, from "Princess Leia's cinammon (sic) buns hairstyle" to Salvador Dali.
Certainly Monae isn't the first to produce and promote an album through the use of an alter-ego. Many have gone before, and certainly comparisons have been made - most clearly to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust - yet it seems worth mentioning this is the first by an African-American woman (no, Sasha Fierce does not count). The significance of a protagonist of a beautifully crafted Futuristic setting being an African American woman cannot be lost. I know I'm no Science Fiction buff, but I can think of very few black women in the genre of Science Fiction at all (Nyota Uhura from Star Trek is not exactly a household name), much less as the central figure on whom hope rests. This album is a statement, or at the very least, a new option of hero for an up-and-coming generation.
Musically, Monae pushes through countless boundaries, as each track seems to hop from genre to genre without feeling disjointed or sacrificing the continuity of the album. Whether it's funk, soul, rap, progressive or experimental rock, she sounds at home, and ready for company. She breaks divides by doing collaborations with not only the somewhat expected Big Boi (she's worked with Outkast in the past), but also with the offbeat indie rockers, Of Montreal on "Make the Bus". On top of it all is her fabulous on stage image, dancing like James Brown in her "uniform"comprised of a black suit with a skinny tie and saddle shoes. Not to mention the gravity defying poof on her head.
Ok, let's freaking listen to this thing! As I mentioned before, the album kicks off with an introduction to the 2nd Suite, which picks up on a few melodic themes from songs to come. Somehow she manages an effortless transition from orchestral overture to rhythmic, upbeat, bassy and beepy "Dance or Die" which launches Janelle into energetic rap-sing verses (that tends to remind me of Missy Elliott) hoping for heightened freedom, over a beat which is established with Saul Williams' poetry. It sets the stage, and like any good setting, it's hard to notice when something new has begun, which is exactly how "Faster" begins. I can't tell you how many times I've felt as though it was the second part of the same song. Still, it adds to the tension of the story as we're reminded that our hero is a fugitive. Again, "Locked Inside", which continues themes of captivity and the hope and fight for freedom, begins without drawing great attention to the fact that a new song has begun. The first three tracks launch us into the tension and urgency of the story, and work as a single unit - kind of like the first act of a play.
Then, probably because of a fade out, Sir Greendown slows down and reflects on the primary romantic relationship at hand: Cindi Mayweather and Anthony Greendown, first introduced to us during Monae's first suite called The Chase. Greendown's love gives our hero the motivation and power to persevere, even though the next two giant songs of funk and melody, "Cold War" and "Tightrope" lyrically find the work difficult. Still, the groove in each is enough to feel as though she can do anything, and dance right through it. "Cold War" makes me nod my head without fail, and "Tightrope", well, it makes me want to perfect my tightrope dance. Again, grounding us from this dance interlude, Monae slows it down with a backward recording on "Neon Gumbo" allowing us to reflect where we are in the story. It also bridges into the at first acoustic-sounding "Oh Maker", one of my favorite non-dance tracks on the album.
Abruptly we find ourselves in two songs linked by their names and perhaps their use of electric guitars, but otherwise could not be more different. "Come Alive" is fantastic, bizarre, and sometimes angry, while "Mushrooms and Roses" can only be described as the sex scene of the album (if albums can have sex scenes...), which ever so gradually fades out, and thus appropriately ends our second Suite. But not the album, of course! Here's a link to ArchAndroid Part II (and the third suite of Metropolis).
Peace out for now, Dance