Janelle Monáe is talented. More importantly, she’s ambitious. The 24-year old singer/dancer/writer/actor/performer gave up a career on Broadway for a shot at music — a pursuit that, she believes, “has the potential to change the world.” Imagine that.
After passing up Broadway for Atlanta, Monáe made nice with Big Boi and eventually Diddy, who made it his priority to produce her first EP Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase for Bad Boy Entertainment. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s sci-fi film “Metropolis,” Monáe made up an ambiguous but ambitious space opera to frame her music, and (unlike her no-frills first LP The Audition) The Chase brought her recognition and tour material. Unlike the concept, the tunes were fresh and promising. Fast forward an excruciating three years, and we have her towering, long-awaited full-length, The ArchAndroid.
With 18 tracks, overtures, songs and segues in over an hour of music, Android is a beast of an album. Barreling through genres with reckless abandon, Monáe’s tunes chew up influences and spit out shiny, modern, theatrical pop. Recalling landmarks like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, Android is a sprawling, boundless piece of work. Throughout the album, Monáe plays musical chameleon, tailoring her vocals and performances to a variety of styles, universally commanding and impressing with each. It’s a promising set — even when the end result slips up.
Because, for all of its schizophrenic genre-hopping, a lot of Android’s songs feel like missed or unnecessary opportunities. Some could be jumping-off points for fully-cooked productions: “Oh Maker” is a neat blend of ABBA, Stevie Wonder and the best of Mariah Carey’s ballads — but it ends before it can amount to much of anything. “Neon Gumbo” is a lazy, backwards spin of a Chase track. Monae’s “collaboration” Of Montreal’s features so little of Monáe that it doesn’t fit at all. The two overtures are vanilla, skippable diversions.
These low points never ruin the album, but with so much on its plate, Android can afford to lose some weight. And when the music fails to impress, Monáe’s lyrics don’t give you much to hold onto. Her concept never steps in the way of the music, but it never convinces you of its necessity, either.
Regardless of these missteps, Android’s highlights are many and varied. “Tightrope” is a nice slice of funk, with chicken-scratch guitars, kit-drum clatter and Monáe’s best James Brown impersonation. The suite from Fela-channeling stomper “Dance or Die” to Off the Wall-disco “Locked Inside” is exciting and fun. “Cold War” is an explosion of a song, even when the melody is less than dynamite. Throughout the album, Monáe is an impeccably engaging presence — from “Say You’ll Go”’s piano balladry to “Wondaland”’s breezy bubblegum pop, she consistently impresses.
The ArchAndroid is invigorating, despite its flaws. It’s more accomplished and promising than some of Monáe’s contemporaries’ entire discographies. Even though it oversteps, you can’t fault Ms. Monáe for her ambition. She’s a fully-clothed female performer with pop radio potential. She’s a fantastic live act, and here’s to hoping she’s around for good.
On “Wondaland,” Monáe invites us into her “Metropolis”: “Change your clothes to tuxedos,” she coos with a smirk. With a little bit of focus, it won’t be long before she’s got us all headed to the dry cleaners.