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Monday, 14 October 2013 14:03

Album review: Janelle Monae ups the android ante on 'The Electric Lady'

Album review: Janelle Monae ups the android ante on 'The Electric Lady'
Written by Brian Benton
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Janelle Monae
"The Electric Lady"
Bad Boy

"The Electric Lady" and Janelle Monae's debut full-length before it, "The ArchAndroid," take place in a distant, dystopian world where a totalitarian regime called "The Great Divide" has forced humans to wear cages on their heads and uses time travel to suppress freedom and love.

In this world, Janelle Monae takes on the alter-ego of Cindi Mayweather, a '50s pompadour-wearing singer/android who, during "The Electric Lady," falls into a romantic endeavor that distracts her from her revolutionary pursuits. Androids, both in Monae's "Metropolis" concept series (which also includes the 2007 EP "Metropolis: Suite I") and in other moments of science fiction, are robots engineered to look like humans, although after listening to "The Electric Lady," I'm beginning to question if even in our own world Monae is a real human. With so much talent squeezed into a 5-foot tall frame, it's hard to believe she could be.

2010's "The ArchAndroid" was a momentous success for Monae. It dazzled with emotional and musical deviations and innovative structure in the form of two suites, both beginning with an instrumental overture. "The Electric Lady" follows a very similar pattern, 19 tracks divided into the final two suites of the "Metropolis" series. Perhaps because of this similar structure, the similar narrative content and the relatively similar sound, we naturally feel the need to compare Janelle Monae's two full-length albums and that, while "The ArchAndroid" seemed fresh and monumental, "The Electric Lady" seems to be less of a triumph. "The Electric Lady," while not as much of giant leap forward, certainly succeeds, but how do you raise the bar when you've set it so high already?

Places where "The Electric Lady" does more than "The ArchAndroid" certainly exist, especially in regards to guests. Monae collaborates more frequently on "The Electric Lady" and with much more purpose. Working with Prince on "Given Em What They Love" is an achievement in itself, but it also serves as a great official opening track for the album. The hard-hitting first lines ("I am sharper than a razor / Eyes made of lazers / Bolder than the truth") and Prince's fiery guitar solo are an explosive start to the album. Collaborating with Solange Knowles on the album's title track let two of today's top talents in soul today build off each other until Monae pulls a Lauryn Hill and raps the boppy tune to a climax. A personal favorite line of that verse: "Classy, sassy, put you in a razzle-dazzy / Her magnetic energy will have you coming home like Lassie."

The Miguel aided "Primetime," on the other hand, doesn't quite reach the same level of fusion. Both Monae and Miguel seem to be holding back, and although it stands out as the album's only real slow jam, it's too heavy on the slow and too light on the jam.

"The Electric Lady" doesn't have an obvious lead single like "The ArchAndroid' had with "Tightrope," but track nine, "Dance Apocalyptic," has stepped up and filled that hole. A bit of Jackson Five and a bit of the Temptations mixed with bubble-gum pop and a frantic hip-hop beat, it's the most danceable and most memorable song on "The Electric Lady." "Dance Apocalyptic" and the more soulful "Look Into My Eyes" that follows and sounds vaguely like "Strangers In The Night," serve as a great example of the album's incredibly wide range of tracks and of Monae's many different styles and influences.

I realized after a few listens that the real issues with "The Electric Lady" comes from rightfully forcing myself to compare it to "The ArchAndroid" and missing the brilliance of it as a standalone album. On its own, "The Electric Lady" is a masterpiece; a well-developed story in 70 minutes of neo-soul, full of changes in tone, catchy drumbeats and intriguing narrative. When we look at it as the follow up to "The Archandroid," one of the best albums of 2010, it is just a successful follow up to one of the best albums of 2010.

Monae has consistently created incredible music; she has also created the problem of making it hard to track her growth and improvement. That's a tough challenge to overcome, but a great one for any music fan to have.

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