02. Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)
I love this woman, and I love this album. She is energetic, ambitious, creative, talented, and all other manner of flattering adjectives. She also may be batshit crazy, but her unapologetic eccentricity is a large part of what so endears me to her. It is her willingness to be weird, her willingness to experiment and play with styles that makes The ArchAndroid 2010's most pleasant surprise for me. In fact, many of the reasons why I like her are the same reasons why I like Shiina Ringo, and I do believe Ms. Monáe to be the closest thing to an American counterpart of Ms. Shiina. Both artists shatter the barriers and push the envelopes of contemporary popular music.
With The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe has succeeded in creating a truly unclassifiable album. Not only are there no two tracks that sound remotely alike; I do not think there are any two tracks that exhibit the same genre or mashup of genres. A noncomprehensive list would include R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk, pop, classical, rock, psychedelia, and big band. The emotional range is all over the place, too, although there seems to be a gradual trend of depression. The songs making up Suite II are largely upbeat, while Suite III becomes much slower and more melancholy towards the end, with things looking rather desperate for our heroine, setting the stage for a much-anticipated Suite IV. I guess I should mention here that this is a concept album, following the journey of fugitive android Cindi Mayweather in the distant 28th century. It is the follow-up to her debut EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), which tells the first part of the story (and has some damn fine music). She definitely takes thematic cues from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis, which is a fantastic and fantastically influential sci-fi flick from the silent movie era, and Monáe's storytelling is a large part of what holds this diverse collection of songs together as something coherent.
The album begins with an short orchestral overture, leading into an impressive suite of three songs. They flow seamlessly into one another, beginning with "Dance or Die," which has some fast-paced vocals more akin to rapping than singing, making the listener feel a definite sense of urgency. The next song, "Faster," unsurprisingly serves to heighten this feeling. Also, very interestingly, the middle of this song has an odd, industrial electronic beat that sounds very similar to the one in Tokyo Jihen's "能動的三分間." It is probably just a coincidence, but it shows that Shiina Ringo and Janelle Monáe are more alike than one might guess initially. The third song, "Locked Inside," is very poppy and reminiscent of Michael Jackson's early material. Moving along, "Cold War" sounds like it could be an Outkast track, but the vocals are all Monáe, and they reach some very affecting heights. "Tightrope" is an incredibly catchy example of progressive hip-hop, with an awesome video to boot. Suite II ends with the psychedelic trip that is "Mushrooms & Roses."
Things get a little weirder with Suite III. It too begins with a short orchestral interlude, which leads into the soulful ballad "Neon Valley Street." Then, "Make the Bus" features Kevin Barnes on vocals, and it is basically an of Montreal track stuck in the middle of the album. Oddly enough, it works, though, and I like it better than most of False Priest. The last three songs prove to be an inversion of the first three (not counting the overture), flipping the mood from exuberance and excitement to melancholy and reflectiveness. "57821" is a haunting folk song driven by acoustic guitar. "Say You'll Go" is probably the most soulful track on the album, and it concludes with a collection of musical cues taken directly from Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Finally, "BabopbyeYa" is pure big band with some added R&B, and though the chorus sounds like one of exaltation, it concludes with the disheartening sentiment of Monáe repeatedly saying, "I must go," before the music fades entirely. In movie terms, this would be the end of the second act, when things look the worst for the protagonists. The sentiment is sad, too, because it means that this incredible album is over.
I am hard-pressed to find flaws with The ArchAndroid. Suite III is a lot less immediately engaging than Suite II, so I did feel initially like it was not as strong, but repeated listens have revealed that it is just as impressive. I suppose people could call this always-changing, always-experimenting pool of genres to be inconsistent and unfocused, and I could not really argue with them there. This album is very ambitious, very high-brow, and very much the work of a restless young artist. Whereas others may find fault in these qualities, though, these features are exactly the kinds of things I want to see in my music. I want to see more artists taking more risks like this. In Monáe's case, the risk seems to have paid off grandly, as she has been receiving a lot of year-end accolades, and deservedly so.
The ArchAndroid may be the most relentlessly creative collection of music I have heard in 2010, and it has turned me into an avid admirer of Janelle Monáe as a musician. I know the trend for most artists is to become more restrained in their sound and production as they grow older, but I hope to see more of the amazing energy, talent, and imagination she has put into this record in her future releases. I certainly will be looking forward to whatever she has in store for Suite IV, and, in the meantime, I have Metropolis and The ArchAndroid to keep me company. Her music is assurance that the medium continues to be challenged.