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Janelle Monae

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Are we walking dead now?" Monae asked Voodoo Music Experience audiences two years ago before crescendoing into an operatic wail and a zombie-like gyration. She's not your average soul singer.

  The audience was equally enthralled and stunned. Monae has performed everywhere from New Orleans' City Park to the White House. Her combination of raw talent and a concise vision, unsparingly delivered with seemingly effortless artistry, borders on overwhelming. Monae's voice houses an opera singer, a '60s ingenue, a full-throttle blues shouter and a Brill Building-worthy soul, and like fashion plates, she interchanges as many musical styles as required to communicate her vision for any particular song.

  Despite a regular preference for a tuxedo and immaculately coifed hair, she's got a lot of fashion plates. And for all the high-art, Monae even manages to make them dance-worthy.

  "Tightrope," her most popular song, is also the most straightforward — and even then she integrates '60s soul and an extended jam as a reference point, not a sampled hook. "Tightrope" is merely a taste of the full album's balance between complexity and accessibility. More recent collaborations with Estelle and pop group Fun. keep her in public view as a followup to her freshman release nears completion.

  It's for the best. It's two years later and The ArchAndroid still requires time to digest. The 18-track opus is actually two parts of a four-part concept album inspired by a 1927 silent film, casting Monae as a messianic figure for a group of segregated machines fighting for independence.

  Yet for all the high concepts, each song works as a composition and not a wannabe book chapter.

  This is mostly from the strength of Monae's voice and her band, pulling heavily from '60s kitsch and pop but also Latin, classic Motown, Broadway and orchestra motifs. The ArchAndroid, much like her performances, is very much alive, and is built to dazzle.

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