If footage of ever-expanding plumes of oil and cynical fake news shows have become your favorite sources of entertainment, let me give you some advice: Stop. Pull yourself away from your TV or computer screen and let Janelle Monáe rock your world with something completely different. Monáe’s new album, The ArchAndroid, is a continuation of the themes begun on her 2008 EP, Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase. Both The ArchAndroid and Metropolis are concept albums featuring Monáe’s alter ego and muse Cindi Mayweather, the leader of an android resistance movement.
The albums deliver the dystopian storyline accompanied by an eclectic mix of rock, R&B, pop, and jazz that points to Monáe’s wide pool of influences. She lists Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and OutKast’s Stankonia among her inspirations. When Monáe wears a towering headdress representing the glittering lights of Metropolis, she evokes memories of the African-American 1970s glam R&B group LaBelle. Other detectable influences are Prince, especially in his “Raspberry Beret” phase, anything from Parliament Funkadelic, and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. In other words, the music is diverse, phenomenal, and difficult to categorize.
Monáe has said, “The music has to jam first and the concept comes later.” Monáe’s fidelity to the quality of the music saves Metropolis and The ArchAndroid from the fate of other contrived, clichéd concept albums.
Monáe is not just a singer and songwriter. In her videos and live concerts, she draws on her background in musical theater to deliver vibrant, ecstatic performances. Her dance moves are reminiscent of James Brown or Andre 3000—but female and much prettier. Monáe says that when she performs she feels that she is “possessed by some spirit” and is not always aware of what she is doing.
Monáe’s creation of Cindi Mayweather and the freedom she feels to dance with abandon is refreshing in a time when the creativity of black women artists outside of the standard, highly choreographed mold of a Beyoncé or Rihanna tends to be stifled. When she isn’t dressed in her funky, futuristic Cindi Mayweather costumes, Monáe and her cohorts, the Wondaland Arts Society, wear tuxedos and bow ties. In various interviews she has described this costuming both as a homage to the working class (people who often have to put on a uniform every day) and as a way to broaden the options for female sensuality and beauty. The tuxedo and Monáe’s sky-scraping pompadour cut a unique profile among her more scantily clad peers.
Monáe describes her songs as “emotion pictures” that transform the mind. In the first single from ArchAndroid, “Tightrope,” Monáe sings of how one must navigate carefully among doubters and haters and seems to describe her own approach to her craft: “See I’m not walkin’ on it / Or tryin’ to run around it / This ain’t no acrobatics / You either follow or you lead, yeah / I can’t complain about it/ I gotta keep my balance / And just keep dancin’ on it.” This is all accompanied by the “funkiest horn section in Metropolis.” The back story of the struggle for android freedom led Monáe to pen lyrics for the second single, “Cold War,” that transcend the fabricated world of Metropolis: “When wings of the weak can / Bring grace to the strong / Make all evil stumble / As it flies in the world / All the tribes come / And the mighty will crumble / We must brave this night / And have faith in love.”
The concept of an android resistance movement in an alternate reality is more defined on Metropolis than on The ArchAndroid, but Monáe insists that you should listen to both of them together or you would be cheating yourself. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
Abayea Pelt is the office manager at Sojourners.