“Are we a lost generation of our people? Add us to equations, but they’ll never make us equal.” —Janelle Monae, “Q.U.E.E.N.”
In an age when Auto-tuned pop divas ride atop beats of synthesized conformity, when the same old lyrics filled with sexual conquests and drug-fueled euphoria just keep seeping out of speakers everywhere like a musical toxin, one artist stands alone. OK—so yes, that did sound a bit like the voiceover to a superhero movie trailer, not to make it sound as though Janelle Monae is a superhero or anything.
But, seriously, the lady is a superhero.
The Electric Lady, Monae’s newest album, marks the next logical step in the Kansas native’s musical evolution. Where her previous albums used the funky energy of Motown as a foundation, this third collection of songs pulls R&B flavor from the decade spanning the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s. At the same time, Monae—an alum of Philly’s Freedom Theatre—keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of the present, singing about daily life struggles and hot-button issues like drug abuse and domestic violence even as she’s striking notes reminiscent of Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack and Prince. The result is an unmistakably 21st-century blend.
As great as her music is, though, Monae’s image makes for an even more remarkable piece of her artistic identity as she walks an unusual tightrope between indie-minded creativity and outright mass-glossy glam. On the one hand, the long-lashed songstress is a recent addition to the CoverGirl cosmetic lineup. On the other, she’s the co-founder of Wondaland Arts Society, a conglomeration of young artists all seeking to bring their own creative magic to various outlets.
All the while, she’s appropriating in her own performances the symbolism of 19th-century minstrel shows—a bold artistic feat that most of her fan base is too young to fully appreciate.
Across her first two revolutionary albums, Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase and The ArchAndroid, Monae borrows the fashion and dance styles of that famously exploitative art form: smiling, wide-eyed black performers in shiny livery, their talents on display in subordinate and subservient roles for the enjoyment of white audiences. The black figures in historical minstrel shows sang of their struggles, but in contexts that dripped with condescension if not outright caricature and mockery, never really allowing those performers to break through and shine their brightest. Now, with brilliant music videos like “Tightrope,” Monae has turned that dynamic inside out: On her body, in this era, the crisp black-and-white lines of a sharp tuxedo signify to her fans not a servant’s garb, but a professional’s—a VIP’s. Kids don’t recognize the difficult history she’s evoking; they just know she’s boss.
(And true to the spirit of performance, Monae’s dynamic, theatrical dance videos are mirrored onstage in the live arena. This, in and of itself, sets her work apart from most pop and hip-hop performances, where if the vocalist dances at all, it’s to a pre-recorded track, and lip-syncing ensues.)
Older folks, of course, who grew up listening to the sound of jazz and Motown, tend to understand Monae’s symbolism more consciously; this was apparent in President Obama’s praise for the young singer/songwriter, when he commended her and her crew’s talents after their performance during a fundraising campaign in Chicago in January 2012. There’s something decidedly profound about using that proscribed “Sambo” imagery with modern intent; turning the shuck-and-jive stereotype into an allegory with which Monae alerts a generation to the decaying infrastructure of the urban community is pure genius.
Monae’s already been studded with awards—notably, the Vanguard Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers at the 2010 Rhythm & Soul Music Awards. It’s great to see her get that sort of validation from her older peers, but one suspects that the one award that truly matters is knowing that her vibrant, poignant songs offer a fresh look toward the future of good music.
Janelle Monae plays The Electric Factory Sun., Oct. 13, 8pm. $25. 421 N. Seventh St. 215.627.1332. electricfactory.info
PW's Music Issue 2014