Crazy Circuitry

June 14, 2010


Janelle Monae – The Archandroid

What makes a good concept album for me is that the album’s individual songs should be able to stand on their own apart from the whole. I feel this way because even if the album’s central story is some weird, sprawling, half-baked idea, I still get to hear some great tunes. Lots of great rock songs from “Another Brick In The Wall” to “Pinball Wizard” to “American Idiot” came from concept albums and went on to great commercial success as classic/alternative staples. However, I have trouble thinking of concept albums outside the rock genre other than Mike Ladd’s Infesticons hip-hop trilogy (which just concluded) and that Imelda Marcos disco musical David Byrne and Fatboy Slim wrote. Enter the Monae.

Janelle Monae is an up-and-coming R&B singer with a story to tell on The Archandroid. It is definitely a weird, sprawling story to rival those great rock operas: time travel, cloning, secret societies, Monae having an android pop star descendant in the 22nd century who will save humanity from said evil secret society (hence the title), and Monae in the present being a mental patient having delusions about the whole story. It’s actually a continuation from her first EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite. While the sci-fi and insanity themes have been touched on before by singers like Kelis and Macy Gray, they have never been approached with the grand scope and musical range as on this album.

The Archandroid has a very maximalist feel to it. You can see Monae’s commitment to her universe before pressing play by looking at the album cover: the Metropolis artwork, the Bioshock fonts, the liner notes listing the inspirations for each song (including Stevie Wonder, Prince, Muhammad Ali’s fists, and glow of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber), and a multiparagraph synopsis written from the perspective of another character in the story.

And the songs? Oh, they more than match the mood. It’s a credit to the artistic vision and talent of Monae and her production team that they made an album with such stylistic variety from song to song and the whole thing still holds together like it’s sci-fi Grease. One thing I didn’t realize until about halfway into my first listen is how flexible Monae is with her vocal styles. The first time you hear her voice on “Dance Or Die” she isn’t singing or cooing or belting, she is rapping with a staccato flow like how Busta Rhymes used to do it in the late 90s. But a few minutes in, the music doubles in time to a rocking Motown number and she’s suddenly singing in a breezy alto on “Faster.” Monae’s singing ranges from Tina Turner scream to Simon & Garfunkel choral whisper, and she even goes into full-on GLaDOS mode on “Wondaland.”

My initial favorite songs on the album were the more upbeat numbers on the album’s first suite, especially “Cold War” and “Tightrope” both of which recall Outkast with their southern-fried paisley-funk backing, and “Come Alive,” where Monae throws all her cards on the table in a rockabilly asylum dance party. The slow-burners on the second suite take a bit more getting used to, as they have sparser instrumentation and Monae’s performances are much cleaner and restrained. However, after re-reading the liner notes and listening closer to the lyrics I came to the conclusion that the second suite is performed by Monae’s Sasha Fierce android-clone Cindi Mayweather. Since these songs are supposed to be performed by a sleek, bionic messiah in a cold, dystopian future, it kind of makes sense that the music feels sad, haunted, and hopeful. It’s a big contrast from the urgency and loony playfulness of the first suite, but that’s what makes the album’s concept – the progression of a story.

Overall The Archandroid is a damn good record, concept or not. There are some hot singles and potential hits for the casual listeners and there’s a neat album progression and nerdy sci-fi theme for the more attentive listeners. Here’s hoping this album sells a boatload so we can get more of this in popular R&B.



  1. […] See my previous write-up on Ms. Monae here. […]

  2. […] lounge exotica one might expect to hear at Glenn Quagmire’s house or in the final third of The Archandroid. Luckily Cee Lo has the pipes to make the whole package legit and uniquely Cee Lo. The standout […]

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