Picture Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”, but with no autotune, vocoder, robot voices, or Pharrell. Instead, over those beautifully produced disco/funk beats and arrangements, place one of the great vocalists of our time there, and you’ll have an idea of what to except from Janelle Monae’s new album “The Electric Lady”.
Janelle Monae, since discovering her 2010 masterpiece “The Archandroid”, is one of my personal favorite artists, and one of the few that I could describe as legitimately uplifting. Forget the genre-bending aspect. The fact is, she’s a modern great, and more people are discovering that fact every day. James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Janelle Monae…the beauty of, say, her famous “Tightrope” performance on David Letterman that the world literally feasted on, is that it’s happening now. With so many deeply moving songs on her last release, expectations were very high for “The Electric Lady”. Of course, there are factors that come into the picture. Many were worried that Monae’s output would become significantly more mainstream and even watered down after seeing her advertise many products, including a major contract with Covergirl.
So is “The Electric Lady” mainstream and watered down? Well, there is definitely some content that would suit a Target or Covergirl commercial. It’s very poppy. That being said, the songs are still strong, and Monae is still convincing. To those who were on board for “The Archandroid”, Janelle is seen almost as a friend, and her bid for pop stardom should be supported. When was the last time someone this creative got this recognized for a series of high concept albums with controversial themes? Think David Bowie and Michael Jackson to get a better picture of what I’m talking about. The first time I listened front-to-back, I must admit I was disappointed, and found it both safe and kind of jarring how standard some tracks seemed. On the 2nd and 3rd listens, however, I began to love the tracks that were too subtle the first go-around.
“Give ‘Em What They Love” is a 10 out of 10. Full of sass and energy, and with a tasteful performance from Prince to boot. One thing you may know about Prince…he doesn’t do many guest spots, so for him to appear supporting Monae is a huge nod. Q.U.E.E.N, featuring the great Erykah Badu, is a feminist anthem that has already made the rounds and done well as a single. Another very solid funk track.
“Electric Lady”, the title track, features Solange, and it’s a perfect choice for the next single. Lyrically an ode to female beauty, the music itself is classic funk pop. Think Bobby Brown. “Primetime”, with Miguel, is a solid track, though a standard r&b ballad and probably surprising for some fans. “We Were Rock N’ Roll” takes the disco influence once again for a solid disco pop outing, an ode to an ex over some lush guitar arrangements.
The album’s interludes are best deleted from your ipod/cloud after first listen. It’s nice to have the story/skits, but they become jarring and completely take you out of the musical flow.
“Dance Apocalyptic” is next, and it takes some getting used to. This is where the Covergirl influence seems to loom large. So poppy that very little of the previous Monae seems to be apparent. However, on repeat listens, it’s easy to get into the song and see how it flows with the album. This is Janelle going back to the Jackson 5 influence.
“Look Into My Eyes” provides a glimpse of “The Archandroid”‘s brilliance, with a stunning ballad to dream to. “It’s Code”, while a solid track, features some awkward key changes and doesn’t quite lift off. “Ghetto Woman” channels Stevie Wonder at his funkiest and gives life to the album’s 2nd half. High recommended both for it’s lyrics and arrangements. “Victory” keeps up the momentum with an unbelievable vocal performance and wise lyrics.
“Can’t Live Without Your Love”, while a solid track, lags a little, in a similar way to “It’s Code”. The epic “Sally Ride” comes almost out of nowhere, and ends up being possibly the most intense track on the album. A beautiful expression of frustrated love. “Wake up Mary. Have you heard the news? Wake up Mary. You have the right to choose.”
Dorothy Dandridge Eyes, featuring Esperanza Spalding, recalls the jazzier elements of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to great effect. It’s about as smooth of a pop song you’ll hear this year. Album closer “What an Experience” sounds like a mixture between “The Lion King” and some of Peter Gabriel’s work. Depending on your tastes it will come off as moving or a bit cheesy. It takes some getting used to.
Overall, while the album does not approach the heights of “The Archandroid”, I don’t think that was really the point here. Here’s the point. It comes down to, sadly, our collective choices and mass digestion. Janelle most certainly did purposefully create a more mainstream offering here. That’s because, while critics freaked over her last album, the mainstream didn’t quite understand it. “The Electric Lady” finds her appealing to the masses. Now, it’s not as successful an appeal as, say, Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, but it’s a success, and will certainly win her a wider fanbase. Pop tendencies are easy to denounce, but the fact is, how well this album does will determine where Janelle can perform, what venues she’ll play at, etc. It’s a tough industry. I, for one, for all it’s flaws, would give the album a 9 out of 10, and in fact, I’ll be driving to Seattle with a carload of friends to see her October show.
My suggestion. Buy the album right away. Delete the skits. Listen with headphones by yourself.