After putting out one of the best and most cohesive concept albums in decades with The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe returns with The Electric Lady, her highly anticipated third effort (fourth in you count her underground collection The Audition), which continues the story of her android heroine Cindi Mayweather. Still, while anticipation for the set has been high, returning to the scene when you're last set was so highly praised can be a daunting task. Some reception for The Electric Lady's singles was a bit lukewarm (and her friend and collaborator Prince had to use his pull to get Janelle the closing set at this year's BET Awards). Despite all that, the album continues what Janelle started with her first few albums as she tells her story by musically criss-crossing genres, decades and eras to somehow fabricate a style and sound that's uniquely her own.
The first half of the album, dubbed "Suite IV" in her futuristic series, houses all the set's singles thus far and is ripe with guest appearances. In fact, the album's almost sequenced to give the collaborators props and then get them out of Janelle's way. Prince stops in after the James Bond-esque "Suite IV Electric Overture" to douse "Give Em What They Love" in purple funk. This is chased with Erykah Badu lending her voice to funky dance floor groove "Q.U.E.E.N." and Solange backing up Janelle on the go-go influenced title track "Electric Lady." And after the first of a few brief interludes (which we'll revisit a bit later), Miguel and Janelle wax romantic on the sultry bedroom jam "Primetime." While it's nice to see Janelle collaborating with some of our favorite artists (and each song is a jam in its own right), packing each feature so close together at the album's onset threatens to overwhelm the groove and narrative of the album early on.
Luckily, after all the features, the rest of the first half is just Janelle. She delivers with the R&B meets gospel feel of "We Were Rock & Roll," and even the slightly misguided '60's surf rock of second single "Dance Apocalyptic" manages to win you over. The theatrical "Look Into My Eyes" closes Suite IV nicely and segues smoothly into the "Suite V Overture." Interestingly enough, these three songs seem most rooted in sounds from The ArchAndroid, especially "Look Into My Eyes," which channels and updates the dramatic flair of "BaBopByeYa."
While the first half of the album is highly enjoyable, it's when Suite V starts that the album really starts to get focused. "It's Code," an undeniable track which sounds like a sweet update on Jackson Five's "Never Can Say Goodbye," starts of this half perfectly with Janelle sounding like a young Michael Jackson in his heyday. The throwback sounds continue as she channels a '70's era Stevie Wonder for "Ghetto Woman." She follows up with "Victory" (which is slightly reminiscent of "Neon Valley Street") and "Can't Live Without Your Love," which are both excellent love songs. However, "Can't Live Without Your Love" edges the former out with its sentimental groove and smoothly crafted lyrics.
"Sally Ride" is this album's venture into psychedelia. Unfortunately, while nice, it's not nearly as memorable as the tracks that surround it. Especially with Janelle's double dip into MJ/Stevie territory "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes" coming right after. The Esperanza Spalding-featuring track is definitely reminiscent of Off The Wall's "I Can't Help It" in the best way possibly, with the ladies' voices melding beautifully. The set ends with Janelle decade and genre hopping once again for "What an Experience." Here, she channels a bit of '80's Lionel Richie with a song that sounds like it would be played over the end credits of a movie. While that may not sound like a flattering description, the song achieves a heartwarming effect that perfectly ends The Electric Lady and closes out this chapter of the Cindi Mayweather saga.
While she pulls no punches musically, perhaps one of the most interesting things about The Electric Lady is that the Cindi Mayweather story isn't actually told through the album's songs -- though some may have references. Instead, she relies on a handful of interludes disguised as futuristic radio broadcasts to give you updates on the most-wanted android and her movement for freedom. Doing this, Janelle frees herself of having to make songs that stick strictly to her concept script, giving them a universality that allows them to soar outside of the framework of an album. It also smartly fills in a world outside of her main story should she ever decide to turn this little rock opera into a full-length feature or show. (Seriously, why hasn't someone tried to make this whole saga into a film or series by now? Hell, if Idlewild happened, this damn sure should.)
If we're going strictly by living up to the concept she's set up on previous albums, The Electric Lady doesn't exactly deliver what was offered on The ArchAndroid, which was a slightly more cohesive experience. That doesn't matter, though, as what Janelle has accomplished with The Electric Lady is deliver an album that transcends the concept without alienating those that were invested in it. It's also given us a much clearer, focused vision of what Janelle can do outside of those constraints. Not every song here works, but the ambition and emotion behind each is definitely felt. For those that dismiss Janelle's work and look as "forced" or "contrived," I'm sure that taking a listen to The Electric Lady will have you change your tune.