One of my best friends handed me Janelle Monáe‘s CD last year and said, “Listen to this- you’ll like it, it’s the kind of stuff you like.” The kind of “stuff” I like? That could mean anything. I had no idea what to expect of her album based on Tristan’s recommendation. Could it be smooth R&B? Cheerful pop music? Thrashing rock music? Seductive jazz songs? Breezy indie-rock? I like all of the above- and based on the kind of “stuff” I like, it could be any of those things.
Surprisingly, The ArchAndroid (released 2010) is a bit of each of those genres. Monáe’s sophomore effort is a concept album, based upon the fictional story of Cindi Mayweather, an android who lives in the future. Cindi breaks the law by falling in love with a human, and the album tells the story of the two star-crossed lovers, and Cindi’s subsequent mission to free the citizens of Metropolis from their oppressive government. All of this is told in a surprising mix of genres- where Monáe hops from R&B, rock, soul, jazz, pop and even classical music with surprising ease. Besides the story being interesting to me (I would TOTALLY read the book), the music is also done quite well (mainly written and produced by Monáe, Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning), providing for an album that I did absolutely love and listened to quite often.
One of the aforementioned classical pieces, Suite II Overture, starts the album off. The sounds of an orchestra tuning up and then an audience politely clapping sets the mood for what sounds like a stage performance. A rush of violins make way and lead into a beautiful piece of classical music, accentuated with a lovely string section playing one of the musical themes heard later in the album. I love the fact that what’s essentially a rock/pop album is starting with a legitimate piece of classical music, and it’s only a touch of the creativity that the album has in store.
Dance or Die is the first actual song on the album, which features Monáe briskly rapping through the verses. Again, a rap song isn’t exactly what I expected, but it sounds nice, especially with the latin beat in the background and the danceable chorus. Meanwhile, Faster takes some of the same elements of the song before it, but mixes it with a faster paced melody- creating a blues/R&B hybrid that’s fun to listen to.
Tightrope was the single from the album and features Outkast’s Big Boi rapping during a bridge. The song is another fast-paced hip hop number, and the accessible sound, breezy refrain, and Monáe’s sleek vocals create an incredibly smooth and likeable song.
So far, Monáe has done less singing and more rapping, but that ends for a bit with Locked Inside. The song is more of a straightforward pop track; the drum loop and hand claps are standard in pop music, but Monáe’s pretty tone gives the song a bit more flavour.
The real standout ballad on the album, or at least the first that made me stop what I was doing and actually listen to the CD, is the emotional track, Cold War. Monáe sounds heartfelt as she sings the lines in the verses (“I’m trying to find my peace/I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me/And it hurts my heart/Lord have mercy, ain’t it plain to see?/That this is a cold war/Do you know what you’re fighting for?”), and despite the frenzy of instrumentation and backing singers, the song’s focus is really on the struggle which Cindi feels, perfectly conveyed in Monáe’s stirring delivery. I also recommend watching the music video (which just consists of Monáe singing the lyrics to the camera- simple, but perfect) for this song, as it really adds to the overall meaning and beauty of the song.
Neon Gumbo is actually a few lines from the song, “Many Moons” on Monáe’s debut album, but played backward. The electric guitar and the spooky backmasking effect are interesting, and provide a perfect bridge to the more experimental sound on the second half of the album. Oh, Maker sounds like something that Paul McCartney would’ve produced in his Beatles days; the maudlin guitar and pop melody seem a bit strange amongst what’s mostly been an urban music album, but the change of pace is refreshing and Monáe tackles the genre with just as much confidence as she handles the raps in the earlier tracks.
Come Alive (War of the Roses) is a rock song with a definite rockabilly feel to it. The thudding bass and frenzied sound are a perfect complement for the quirky lyrics. Monáe treats this style with full conviction- even doing a metal yell a few times during the verses. Though the loud sound isn’t my favourite thing, I still applaud Monáe for successfully pulling off a full blown rock song and managing to inject her own style in it. On the other hand, Mushrooms & Roses sounds like a Prince tribute. The heavy beat and strings sound a lot like Prince’s ballads, though Monáe spends much of the song singing through a vocoder. The vocoder is a surprise, but the soul/electronic sound actually plays out a lot better than expected.
Indie-favourites, Of Montreal make an appearance on the bizzarely delightful Make The Bus. Once again, the odd combination of genres- this time a bouncy pop/indie-rock hybrid with some Queen-esque vocals from Of Montreal’s lead singer, Kevin Barnes, during the bridge- works a lot better than I’d ever imagine. The meld of sounds is a bit like a spastic acid trip, but I think that’s pretty much the intended effect. Monáe fades to the background vocally on this track, and since the sound is a lot diferrent than anything thus far (and the fact that Barnes is the sole writer of the track), I’m wondering if Of Montreal’s influence has taken over most of the song.
Wondaland is easily my second-favourite song on the album, which is funny, as it’s the poppiest track on the CD. Right from the opening bouncy sythensizers and “la la la”‘s you can tell that this track is less experimental soul/rock and more bubblegum pop. Monáe sings the song in a high-pitched, airy tune, perfect for the superficiality of the lyrics (“I gotta get back to Wondaland/Take me back to Wondaland/I think me left my underpants”) and song’s sound. The bridge breaks the track down a bit, with Monáe seductively purring out the sexy refrain (“We belong here/Stay the night/I’m so inspired/You touched my wires…”).
The album ends on a quieter note. Deep Cotton is actually a funk band consisting of Monáe’s songwriting/production team, Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder. The guys are listed as collaborators on the slow-paced ballad, 57821. The dreary sound works well with the forlorn tale of Cindi and her lover, but I’ve never quite grown used to the bland melody and quiet guitar. I will say the guys of Deep Cotton and Monáe’s vocals sound really lovely together, but I never actually stay focused on the song long enough to enjoy it.
Mid-tempo ballad, Say You’ll Go, is another favourite, mainly for the romantic lyrics. Though some of the lines are a bit clichéd, I still enjoy Monáe’s description of true love and the yearning she emotes during the choruses (“Our love will sail in this ark/The world could end outside our window/Let’s find forever/And write our names in fire on each other’s hearts”). Her voice is at its best here- at times gentle and soft, and as the song builds towards the end, strong and pleading.
The album ends with the most surprising of genre hops- a swing song! BaBopBye Ya sounds like something from the 40’s, with the brass that begins the track, right down to the heavy percussion and snaps. I always imagine this song being played in a smoky lounge room, with Monáe belting out the lyrics from the stage. Though I applaud the daring change of pace, my main complaint with this song is that it’s simply too long. Clocking in at eight minutes long, the track far overstays its welcome (even with the second movement that appears halfway through) and becomes tedious about five minutes in. Again, the song is a great storytelling vehicle, and the first time I listened to the album, I did listen to BaBopBye Ya all the way through just to see how Cindi’s story played out (spoiler alert: it’s a cliffhanger, as Monáe is making the story arch a trilogy), but without the story, the song is too long to be picked up and played.
Janelle Monáe is quite talented, and that’s apparent upon listening to The ArchAndroid. From the engaging story/concept, to the vast mix of musical genres, the disc is completely entertaining from start to finish.
1. Suite II Overture
2. Dance Or Die
4. Locked Inside
5. Sir Greendown
6. Cold War
7. Tightrope (featuring Big Boi)
8. Neon Gumbo
9. Oh, Maker
10. Come Alive (The War of The Roses)
11. Mushrooms & Roses
12. Suite III Overture
13. Neon Valley Street
14. Make The Bus (featuring Of Montreal)
16. 57821 (featuring Deep Cotton)
17. Say You’ll Go