Concept albums are normally tackled by veteran artists years into their career as a means to challenge themselves and shake up the expectations of their audiences. But for Janelle Monae, who attempts to challenge herself on every song, she’s created a driven debut that continues the story of her 2007 EP Metropolis: The Chase (Suite I of IV), based on the seminal 1927 science-fiction film Metropolis. Such compulsive ambition usually results in a masterpiece or a disaster, and in this case Janelle Monae has crafted one of the best major label debuts in recent memory.
Immediately, you are transported to Monae’s vision of Metropolis via the orchestra-only intro “Suite II Overture.” There is applause at the beginning which conveys the intended perspective that the listener is eavesdropping on a conceptual movie or performance rather than a standard album. The track in tone lays out the complexity of the upcoming story with its alternations between assonance and dissonance, punctuated by frenetic violins and sprawling harp arrangements.
The next voice we hear acclaimed poet Saul Williams on “Dance or Die,” who simply states the themes of each verse before Monae rhymes the conditions that are ravaging her Metropolis. As the title suggests, the “dance” or power of music becomes the starting point for the mind’s liberation. The track builds in revelry with horns and guitar riffs adding to the initial drum focus, and a full-blown celebration breaks out mid-song. Monae emphasizes education to prevent degradation while the chorus singers, representing the workers, await the coming of the android unifier Cindi Mayweather.
The guitar riffs smoothly move into the whimsical “Faster,” which ups the frenetic pace with DJ scratches. The jam session feel works perfect with Janelle’s startling lyrical imagery, which gives allusions to Greek mythology and contemplates whether to flee an unhealthy relationship (“You kill me softly with the sun/You melt my wings and call it fun/I should run..” ). “Locked Inside” keeps the funky vibe going with arrangements and refrains that hint at her influences like Michael Jackson (“Baby Be Mine,” “Rock With You”). Still, the song is stamped with Monae’s own originality, an again her lyrical depth shines through (“When I look into the future I see danger in its eyes/Babies die before they’re born and no one ever smiles/The writers and the artists are all paid to tell us lies/To keep us locked inside…” ).
The first semblance of a ballad doesn’t come until “Sir Greendown.” Monae’s voice is accompanied by murmuring background singers, which gives the song a striking, ethereal feel. The dreamy love song comes in just over 2 minutes and functions more as an interlude and lead-in for the challenging, self-determination themed “Cold War.” Here, the beginning organs explode into percussion and guitar, and Janelle displays her struggle in finding peace with her identity, and challenges us to do the same (“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…This is a cold war/Do you know what you’re fighting for?”)
The LP’s second half retains its early potency and focus. While up-tempo tracks dominated early, Monae later explores more ballads, and by extension more vulnerability. Some are rife with double-meanings such as “Oh, Maker,” which functions as a standard love song and also storyline wise as the android’s conflicted feelings for its creator (complete with concluding, otherworldly synthetic chords). That adherence to storyline makes the distorted, autotune vocals for “Mushrooms & Roses” appropriate. While the Monae’s urges us to “love without fear,” the screeching guitar and overall tone reflects the rock “power ballads” of the 80s.
Janelle Monae (or perhaps android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather) has received many accolades for her unique personal style and stage show, but not enough acclaim for the strength and versatility of her singing voice. On “Neon Valley Street,” she can bring it to unguarded, light melodic levels usually reserved for jazz singers, and at times is reminiscent of a prime Lauryn Hill. Selections like “Come Alive” showcase the young vocalist’s ability to build to piercing, impassioned funk yells and chants.
“Say You’ll Go” is another multi-layered piece in songwriting and production that shows another Monae influence in Stevie Wonder (“Rocket Love”). She references the aforementioned work in her lyrics, which ask if her lover is ready to completely trust in the power of their union (“Love is such a novelty/A relic painted masterpiece…An underwater rocket love/Exactly what I’m searching for/If you’re brave enough to go then tell me so…”). Towards the end, she strips away the backing vocals and string instruments to sing softly with the piano before adding operatic vocals for a satisfying, albeit mysterious finish.
Suite III’s journey ends with “BabopbyeYa.” Here, Monae pulls elements of Classical, Tribal rhythms, and Swing music together for an exciting finish. She incorporates the authoritative accent heard by many jazz singers of that era, and you feel her pain as Monae calls and by song’s end wails in vain for her missing lover. The track is brilliant in its pacing, and is neatly split into several parts marked by clear transitions; the final being a spoken word piece (“I hear echoes of your laughter in the corners of my mind/While I memorize each detail of your intricate design/In your hair is a symphony/Your lips a string quartet/They tell stories of the Neon Valley Street/Where we first met..”). “BabopbyeYa” brings closure to the album, but still hints at the final Suite IV which will conclude Monae’s vision.
Aside from rare self-indulgent moments (“Neon Gumbo,” “Make the Bus”) The ArchAndroid is a fantastic debut that should serve to be Janelle Monae’s coming out party for the uninitiated. At a mere 24 years old, she is a woman with an uncompromising vision of her art. The genuine emotional honesty of her work is inspiring and profound in today’s popular music climate. Instead of simply mimicking her influences, Monae has used them as inspiration to push and in some cases break our conventional music boundaries and labels. Years from now, it’s very likely we all will look back at The ArchAndroid as the major label debut that launched the career of a legend.