Janelle Monae’s ‘The Electric Lady’: Album Review

Christina Lee | September 10, 2013 6:00 am

Janelle Monae introduced herself as a heroine, and like those in comic books, her backstory was an integral — yet often obscured — part of her tale. In songs and interviews she avoided elaborating on personal details such as her Kansas City upbringing, drug-addicted father or days in Atlanta when she wore colors besides black and white. Instead, she appeared, seemingly fully formed, masquerading as android Cindi Mayweather.

On her 2010 full-length debut The ArchAndroid, Monae’s classically-trained voice navigated through a futuristic saga referencing the past, comprising the Technicolor thrill of Dame Shirley Bassey, the rock ‘n’ roll vigor of Jerry Lee Lewis and the ice cold raps of Andre 3000. And as Cindi crusaded on behalf of the have-nots, and was on the run because she fell in love with a have(a human, which is forbidden), she was also paving an escape from everyday existence.

In her surprising new album The Electric Lady (out ), Monae continues to fight for noble causes, albeit in her trademark roundabout manner: mainstream R&B needed saving, but so did she. At shows, the performer named the record after a silhouette that she kept feeling compelled to paint in red and green, of breasts and hips. She named these paintings at therapy, but she seems to dislike the fact that therapy’s partially responsible. “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she said, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”

The Electric Lady is much like that silhouette, as it appears in the album’s liner notes: stark in its vibrant simplicity.

Monae approaches R&B with a wide-angle lens here, and the LP marks her return to existence on Earth. The divide between humans and androids is still present, but only during talk radio-inspired interludes. (“ROBOT LOVE IS QUEER,” one “caller” says.) Its styles span in time from before 1985’s coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club to Power 105.1’s morning talk show “The Breakfast Club.” Her co-conspirators dare to seduce differently from everyone else — the too-cool-for-Hov Solange, jazz wild child Esperanza Spalding, the genre-bending Prince — but here, help lend faithful interpretations of a time when R&B flirted with funk, smoothed out in space and licked up rock’s gritty guitar licks.

Play The Electric Lady through speakers for family and friends, and they’ll quickly remember all the stunning ways that R&B’s gotten down before. Play the record through headphones, though, and its radio-friendlier songs of love and heartbreak will feel like new clothes exposing more than Monae’s trademark tuxedo.

Monae’s still the most quotable when she’s on a mission. (From Prince duet “Givin Em What They Love”: “They want me locked up in a system ’cause I’m on a mission, blame it on my youth.”) Her attempts to find other fits are mixed, but admirable: In Motown ballad “It’s Code” and next-generation Motown duet “PrimeTime,” her voice rings with the childlike clarity of Jackson 5-era Michael Jackson. “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” an exercise in Toni Braxton-style sophistication, ages her. In one swift rap Monae blurts out sacrifices that her mother, “Ghetto Woman,” made for her, almost as if by accident.

Through all of this, though, she lands a new, worthy credo in the swirling “Victory”: “Today I feel so troubled deep inside, I wish the tears would roll back in my eye / Well alright, oh / I keep singing songs until the pain goes.”

On the bottom of each cover of Janelle Monae’s releases are bubbles, filled in to indicate how far she is into her sci-fi saga. Previous releases showed four, while The Electric Lady shows seven (with five filled in). While apparently a prequel, The Electric Lady feels more like an imperfect but necessary detour with its R&B nostalgia and reminders of Monae’s past — what she escaped, not what she mapped out on a storyboard. And after aiming to seem nothing less than impenetrable, Monae is starting to understand the value of an everyday heroine.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Christina Lee

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