A lot of people have been talking about Janelle Monáe, myself included. I wrote about her look and sound here and here, as well as her music video for “Tightrope” during my recent stint at Bitch. Her album, TheArchAndroid Suites II and III, was released last month and many wonder if she represents the future of pop music. Showcasing an eclectic blend of genres and references to tell the story of a futuristic messianic figure named Cindy Mayweather, Monáe channels her love of science fiction to create music that’s entrenched in the past, yet remains fresh and singular. Not since perhaps David Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy Stardust has high-concept pop music sounded so fun.
Some critics note Monáe’s indebtedness to a myriad of popular influences. In a recent Culture Gabfest podcast, Jody Rosen rattled off seemingly disparate folks who inform her sound like Fela Kuti (evident on songs like “Dance Or Die”), jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan (“Faster,” “Come Alive,” “Tightrope”), 60s British psych folk (the verses to “Oh, Maker”), and 80s punk and new wave (“Come Alive”). Obviously James Brown factors prominently here as well.
I point him toward the artists I mapped out in my Bitch entry and raise him Astrud Gilberto (“Sir Greendown”), Simon and Garfunkel (“57821”), Wendy and Lisa (“Wondaland”), and Prince’s psychedelic inclinations (“Mushrooms & Roses”). There are notable pairings with Saul Williams in “Dance or Die” and Of Montreal on “Make the Bus.” There are even direct references to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song In My Heart” , and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
The emphasis on musical reference and hybridity also links The ArchAndroid to artists like Beck, Cornershop, and mentors’ OutKast who anticipated the iPod on shuffle approach ubiquitous to pop music during the 90s. I detect kinship between Monáe and Gnarls Barkley in “Cold War.” In its embrace of concept and musical extravagance, I note a tenuous connection with Gorillaz and Bat for Lashes as well. And strangely enough, I also sense an unexpected affinity between The ArchAndroid and Helium’s The Magic City, the sophomore release of an indie rock band whose leader Mary Timony wanted to channel her love of prog rock into an album full of varied sonic atmospheres and rich storytelling. In short, there’s a city’s worth of ideas in Monáe’s head, as the album cover suggests.
If this list suggests that the music contained within The ArchAndroid is derivative, belabored, unformed, or tedious, it’s to the album’s credit that it certainly doesn’t sound that way. In fact, save for the extraneous (“BabopbyeYa”), I marvel at how the 18-track album simultaneously works as a collection of singles and as a cohesive album with considerable buoyancy. I’d wager that one could go in without knowing about the story or any of the reference points and gladly navigate its varied pop terrain at home with headphones and on the dance floor.
Some believe Monáe’s artistic ambitions exceed her grasp. But I’ll gladly champion a young artist bored with the limitations of a genre that she’s assumed to align with because of her race. Like Gnarls Barkley, she demands to be insinuated in pop music’s cultural history in order to reclaim black people’s obscured role in the creation of the form and I applaud that.
It’ll be interesting to see how Monáe and her audience will evolve, as she captures much of the same white hipster fanbase as OutKast, Kanye West, tour mate Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But I have no doubt she’ll negotiate it with aplomb. With her focus as forward as her trademark pompadour, she’s hardly “just another weirdo.”