There ain’t many people doing it like Janelle Monae these days. Male or female, it takes a hunk of courage to introduce yourself to the world via an alter ego and a series of concept albums – more often than not the concept becomes wearing or over-baked, and the persistence results in songs that are, well, boring. (We’re still scarred from our time spent as Eugenia Fuckafillet the Third. Turns out the world wasn’t ready for a raunchy Austen tribute act.)
So far, Janelle Monae has soared over this pitfall. The ArchAndroid was a stunning collection of undefinable quality – R&B, funk-soul, tinges of alt-rock and pop, it had creativity in droves and delivered succinct masterpieces like Cold War and Locked Inside. The Electric Lady delivers Suites IV and V of Monae’s Lang-inspired opus; while the futuristic concept shows no signs of fatigue, it does yield mixed results over 19 tracks.
After the opening overture, the first we hear of Monae’s vocal is as sharp as the razor she’s singing about. Givin’ Em What They Love is quite the start – crystal clear but edged with dark rock, if it sounds a bit like Prince that might be because it features His Royal Purpleness himself. It’s a promising start, for sure.
But not all the collaborations come off as successfully – while singles Q.U.E.E.N and Primetime meld perfectly with Erykah Badu and Miguel respectively, the underwhelming title track is a waste of Solange, as is its remix with Big Boi and Cee-Lo. It doesn’t help that the song gets lost in a forgettable mid-section – barrig the odd 40s-inspired ballad, it’s restored only through the lightning energy of Dance Apocalyptic. But while both Suites are uneven in quality, the closing of the album sees Janelle at her finest. Can’t Live Without Your Love, Sally Ride, and Dorothy Daindridge Eyes are quite the final triptych, as Monae brings together melodies and theme in three strong bursts.
It’s undoubtedly an ambitious, sprawling piece of work – what strikes the most is Monae’s awe-inspiring intelligence, how every line and interlude is so carefully thought out for her narrative. It’s parable over pop, and while it is quite an overwhelming listen, The Electric Lady is further proof of Monae’s position as the most innovative of all her peers. Which, let’s face it, can never be a bad thing.