Verdict: 4 / 5
Mark my words, come Grammy Awards 2014 Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis-themed The Electric Lady will be the album to beat. While most music of the 21st century is driven to create top 40 hits, the 27-year-old nonconformist Monáe is willing to fly the unique/different/original flag and focus on creating music that inspires herself firstly, and then her fans. There is nothing like her second album out there at the moment. Best described as an atomic explosion of neo soul, The Electric Lady is a rare record that embodies elements of pop, hip hop, funk, rock, soul, R&B and mixes them all with a good measure of sci-fi cinematic overtures. Fresh and eclectic are just some of the words being thrown around by critics. Even Prince is a fan. And with good reason.
Set in a dystopian future, The Electric Lady continues the science fiction story arc from her previous albums, Metropolis: Suite 1 and The ArchAndroid: Suite II and III, with a tale about a messianic cyborg named Cindi Mayweather. The story is driven mostly through radio interludes and cover art (painted by Sam Spratt), with every single part of the concept well thought through and envisioned into a dynamite package (what amazing attention to detail). Along the way we are fed clever metaphors for racism, sexism and spiritualism, all well hidden within the themes.
Split into Suite IV and V, the first half of the album features a host of guest appearances from artists like Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange and Miguel. It’s also hosts the most radio friendly side of the set. The Electric Lady kicks off with an orchestral overture which seems inspired by Quintin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. An appropriate introduction for the bombastic sounds to come.
Givin’ ‘Em What They Love, which has the iconic Prince lending his pipes and a few strings on his electric guitar, brings the first punch. And it’s a haymaker. The song is catchy and the harmonies work really well between the two artists. The fearless Monáe proves that she can remain calm and in control even while she is in the shadow of greatness. The funky energy is continued on Q.U.E.E.N, the leading single off the album. “Am I a freak for dancing around?” She questions listeners about her uniqueness.
The title track Electric Lady, featuring Beyoncé’s sister Solange, continues to impress, as does PrimeTime (featuring Miguel) and Dance Apocalyptic. Ten tracks in Suite IV ends and Suite V begins, once again with an orchestral overture. The second half of the album is clearly more experimental than the first. The empowering track Ghetto Woman, for instance, is a soulful electro funk throwback to Stevie Wonder’s Reggae Woman. Even when she borrows ideas, they feel innovative and fresh.
Thanks to her amazing individuality and exclusivity, Janelle Monáe has created her very own world, with her own rules and her own sound. It’s great to hear a high-concept album that actually works. It’s all very clever, perhaps a little too clever for the Top 40 listener. Let’s hope that come this time next year the planets align and she becomes a household name. She certainly deserves it.