So infrequently does an artist appear that exists in their own world and exceeds all preconceived expectations that when one pops up, heads are scratched, brows are furrowed, and reluctant praise is given as editors and critics fall over themselves in an attempt to categorize said artist. Somewhere in the cosmic link between James Brown, David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Andre 3000 falls Janelle Monáe, the one-woman movement behind our Album of the Year, The ArchAndroid.
It's nearly impossible to pin Janelle down. Your desire to liken her a female André 3000 sells her short. At first glance, slapping her with a "black Lady Gaga" tag cheapens her ideals. Visually and stylistically, she is none of those things; Janelle is an entirely separate entity altogether. There is no cleavage. There are no ass implants, no bone straight weave, and no crotch-pumping. There are no name brands on display. Covered from neck to ankle in her trademark tuxedo, she deflects attention from her wardrobe and onto her product: her cybertronic, all-empowering brand of music.
After 2007's debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), there was nowhere to go but up. Upon the news of her signing with the original Vampire of Brooklyn, Sean "Diddy" Combs, she quickly clarified their union as a partnership. She was ultimately in control. He provided much-needed marketing dollars. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Last year, she began dropping hints about the release of her second and third (of a planned four) suites, which she delivered on May 18th with the release of The ArchAndroid.
Let's start with the cover. Not only was she stunning, but the detail here was breathtaking. The inventive story behind the headpiece's creation set the stage for a full, fully-realized musical story. Take note: This is how you build anticipation for an album.
Sure, effectively telling the story arch of a love-struck freedom-fighting android named Cindi Mayweather could be exhausting to some, but Janelle handled the challenge with ease. If "Many Moons" and "Sincerely, Jane" from her EP were any indicator of her abilities, the world had nothing to fear, as Cindi would soon return to save us from self-destruction and an onslaught of bad music. The infectious lead single, "Tightrope" featuring the man who discovered her wondrous talents, Big Boi, cautioned of the importance of balance in one's life. Here, Janelle's vocals shined over horn-driven production and a funky, danceable beat. While "Tightrope" got the spotlight, it was the grand "Cold War" that fully displayed the range of her voice. Just when we thought it was impossible to top the GRAMMY-nominated "Many Moons," she teleported to the next level.
From the start of the album's opening with the "Suite II Overture," it is clear that you were in for a musical experience. Featuring a full orchestra, the piece, dreamed up by brothers Roman Gianarthur Irvin and frequent collaborator Nate "Rocket" Wonder was among the most beautiful compositions released into the world this year. There were no lyrics, just the brilliant sonic interpretation of the wonder awaiting you in Suite II. There, you'd find the spirits of Stevie Wonder ("Locked Inside"), Janis Joplin ("Come Alive"), and Jimi Hendrix ("Mushrooms 7 Roses") alive here, dancing, rocking out, and roaming freely. The way Janelle slid between genres was fascinating. It was effortless, convincing, and almost magical to encounter. There were no gimmicks, merely the outpourings of a frighteningly talented, petite Kansas City girl.
Suite III, beginning with another overture was, similarly, a breath of fresh air. Stylistically, it continued the genius sequencing, with many tracks flowing seamlessly into the next. She teamed up with touring buddies Of Montreal ("Make the Bus"), and fellow Wondaland Arts Society signees Deep Cotton ("57821"), and achieved magic each time. She took you on a journey through time and space, showcasing a full range of emotion, ending with the nine-minute love lament, "BaBopByeYa," itself a series of orchestral movements. Again: beautifully done.
It feels weird that this is her official debut album. Most of the world learned of her earlier this year via her electrifying appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Already, though, she performs and sings with the grace and expertise of a seasoned songstress. The ArchAndroid is a fully-thought out and conceptualized body of work, executed with a level of precision once seen with Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 project. Her unwavering commitment to her product and message should serve as an example of cohesion for her peers, predecessors, and generations to come. True talent trumps studio tricks and marketing ploys every time.