Archive | February 2011

ArchAndroid – Janelle Monae, 2010 (Part II)

I have trouble knowing exactly how to understand the two Suites found on The ArchAndroid.  What really throws me off is that the first Suite (Monae’s album The Chase) and presumably her fouth/last Suite are albums to themselves.  Why has she put the middle two on one epic album?  Are they incomplete without each other, or was it simply practical?

Although the two Suites are distinct from one another separated by their overtures, the album is listened to in its entirety.  Never have I thought to myself, ‘well, I think I’ll just listen to the third suite of The ArchAndroid now’.  The album is divided, but it’s still one album: If Monae really wanted separate listening experiences, she would have turned it into a double disc at least.

And so here we are where I left off: The third Suite’s overture chiming in, interestingly enough not only foreshadowing the melodies to come, but also picking up on themes provided primarily by the final song of Suite II, “Mushrooms and Roses”, further evidence that there is something more substantial linking these particular two Suites.

“Neon Valley Street” moves directly out of the Suite III Overture with a much smoother transition then that of Suite II.  It feels almost like a song meant to give you a bit of time to remember where and when you are in the performance, and settle into your seat for the second act.  “May the song reach your heart” beckons the listener back into the story, and by the time Janelle’s robotic rap starts up I am hooked again.  The speaking outro could just as easily be the intro to “Make the Bus” which abruptly begins with Of Montreal’s Kevin Barns voice which is totally creepy, and works super well with the whole science-fiction vibe.

In fantastic form, Monae proves that she can indie it up, and then move into “Wondaland”, whose melody is reminiscent of the catchiest of an Earth Wind and Fire track.  I find myself humming it when I’m walking around work, or waiting for a bus on a regular basis.

The next two tracks are on the mellower side, “57821” (the number referring to Cyndi’s droid number) points to her chosen-ness.  Sir Greendown is both her lover, and biggest believer in her being a Messianic figure, and it seems that this song suggests that even her droid number somehow prophecies that Cindi will indeed be the one to save Metropolis.  Musically, the song layers harmony with Monae and Deep Cotton, and reminds me of something that Fleet Foxes would do.  (Have I mentioned that her genre diversity literally blows my mind?)  “Say You’ll Go” is haunting and beautiful, and comes across to me as a duet between Janelle and the piano.

Finally, “BaBopBye Ya” which transitions through a whole bunch of varied sections, and yet always makes me think of the James Bond movie songs that scroll during the opening/closing credits.  You know, like this:  It allows the album to end while still holding an intrigue and mystery as to what is to come with Suite IV.  I’m ready for it, Janelle Monae!

The ArchAndroid, though only the middle of a story, has a lot to say.  About love, freedom, race, and boundary crossing.  And it is definitely worth a listen.

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ArchAndroid – Janelle Monae, 2010 (Part I)

2010 was a pretty incredible year for music.  And I know it’s a little late for any best-of blogs, but part of my hiatus here has had to do with an onslaught of good new music to listen to.  It’s time to pay homage to one of those distractions, and although there are several to choose from, none of the records from last year have demanded attention like Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid.  It’s insanely ballsy, diverse in genre and mood, and yet cohesive in both its bizarre concept and polished production.

The album needs a rather large introduction since the only real way to listen to it is within the context of its concept.  The ArchAndroid is composed of 2 Suites, each propelled and punctuated by an overture (at tracks 1 and 12).  This is why I’ve decided to break this blog into two parts, and will discuss each Suite separately.  Also, there’s just way too much to say!

There is a serious overlap of music with drama as Monae theatrically presents the suites (actually the 2nd and 3rd of what will be a total of 4) as work of the futuristic character of Janelle Monae, who was forced to leave her home year of 2719, and is imprisoned as a patient in Palace of the Dogs in the present.  Much of her music regards her sort of alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android (and THE Archandroid whom the album is named for) built with Monae’s DNA who is a messianic figure of Metropolis.  Yes, a somewhat complicated story.  But one that adds layers to the listening experience as The ArchAndroid unites Science Fiction to Reality and Past to Future.  Even as the story presents itself as distant from our world, the liner notes name inspirations for each track to be familiar icons of our present and past culture, from “Princess Leia’s cinammon (sic) buns hairstyle” to Salvador Dali.

Certainly Monae isn’t the first to produce and promote an album through the use of an alter-ego.  Many have gone before, and certainly comparisons have been made – most clearly to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust – yet it seems worth mentioning this is the first by an African-American woman (no, Sasha Fierce does not count).  The significance of a protagonist of a beautifully crafted Futuristic setting being an African American woman cannot be lost.  I know I’m no Science Fiction buff, but I can think of very few black women in the genre of Science Fiction at all (Nyota Uhura from Star Trek is not exactly a household name), much less as the central figure on whom hope rests.  This album is a statement, or at the very least, a new option of hero for an up-and-coming generation.

Musically, Monae pushes through countless boundaries, as each track seems to hop from genre to genre without feeling disjointed or sacrificing the continuity of the album.  Whether it’s funk, soul, rap, progressive or experimental rock, she sounds at home, and ready for company.  She breaks divides by doing collaborations with not only the somewhat expected Big Boi (she’s worked with Outkast in the past), but also with the offbeat indie rockers, Of Montreal on “Make the Bus”.  On top of it all is her fabulous on stage image, dancing like James Brown in her “uniform”comprised of a black suit with a skinny tie and saddle shoes.  Not to mention the gravity defying poof on her head.

Ok, let’s freaking listen to this thing!  As I mentioned before, the album kicks off with an introduction to the 2nd Suite, which picks up on a few melodic themes from songs to come.  Somehow she manages an effortless transition from orchestral overture to rhythmic, upbeat, bassy and beepy “Dance or Die” which launches Janelle into energetic rap-sing verses (that tends to remind me of Missy Elliott) hoping for heightened freedom, over a beat which is established with Saul Williams’ poetry.  It sets the stage, and like any good setting, it’s hard to notice when something new has begun, which is exactly how “Faster” begins.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt as though it was the second part of the same song.  Still, it adds to the tension of the story as we’re reminded that our hero is a fugitive.  Again, “Locked Inside”, which continues themes of captivity and the hope and fight for freedom, begins without drawing great attention to the fact that a new song has begun.  The first three tracks launch us into the tension and urgency of the story, and work as a single unit – kind of like the first act of a play.

Then, probably because of a fade out, Sir Greendown slows down and reflects on the primary romantic relationship at hand: Cindi Mayweather and Anthony Greendown, first introduced to us during Monae’s first suite called The Chase.  Greendown’s love gives our hero the motivation and power to persevere, even though the next two giant songs of funk and melody, “Cold War” and “Tightrope” lyrically find the work difficult.  Still, the groove in each is enough to feel as though she can do anything, and dance right through it.  “Cold War” makes me nod my head without fail, and “Tightrope”, well, it makes me want to perfect my tightrope dance.  Again, grounding us from this dance interlude, Monae slows it down with a backward recording on “Neon Gumbo” allowing us to reflect where we are in the story.  It also bridges into the at first acoustic-sounding “Oh Maker”, one of my favorite non-dance tracks on the album.

Abruptly we find ourselves in two songs linked by their names and perhaps their use of electric guitars, but otherwise could not be more different.  “Come Alive” is fantastic, bizarre, and sometimes angry, while “Mushrooms and Roses” can only be described as the sex scene of the album (if albums can have sex scenes…), which ever so gradually fades out, and thus appropriately ends our second Suite.  But not the album, of course!  Here’s a link to ArchAndroid Part II  (and the third suite of Metropolis).

Peace out for now,
Dance