Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Janelle Monae spares no expense in dazzling on The Electric Lady

When Janelle Monae hit the scene in 2010, she was intent on taking no prisoners. The arrival her debut, The Archandroid, signaled the emergence of a breathtaking and multitalented new pop star who could excel at a wide variety of styles scattered all across the musical spectrum. The followup album forges ahead in the directions suggested on The Archandroid, but pushes them to even more dizzying heights.

The Electric Lady, which contains Suites IV and V of her ongoing Cindy Mayweather saga, is balanced around a finely crafted dichotomy; Suite IV is generally characterized by high octane, explosive dance tracks featuring larger than life synths that draw influence from an array of various eras, while Suite V relaxes the pace and gives Monae the chance to impress on a series of shimmering ballads. She wastes no time getting started on "Givin' 'Em What They Want," unquestionably one of the most defiant, foot stomping blasts of attitude unleashed on public airwaves since Queen's "We Will Rock You." A space age guitar solo laid down by none other than Prince himself gives the piece dramatic flair while simultaneously driving Monae's point home.

One of the most defining characteristics that sets Monae apart from her pop music contemporaries is how her songs often progress and develop into something more than they were when they began. "Ghetto Woman" begins as a very loud, synth driven 80s pop/R&B stunner before transforming into a hard hitting piece of socially conscious hip hop. Similarly, the closing track "What an Experience" starts off as a mid-tempo ballad before adding in gospel influences and picking up the pace to end as an optimistic number delivering a message of hope.

Over the course of the disc's 67 minute run time, she covers all bases by touching on funky 70s style beats (The Electric Lady), smooth soul ballads (Primetime), chilled out jazzy numbers (Dorothy Dandridge Eyes), and even mellow Spaghetti Western ballads with a classic, old school feel (Look Into My Eyes). She also shows an uncanny knack for being able to contrast styles. "Dance Apocalyptic  sounds upbeat with its jangly 60s girlpop, but its subject matter discusses topics such as the end of the world and a zombie outbreak in Atlanta. She also has no shortage of friends to help her do her damage. Erykah Badu makes a minor guest appearance on "Q.U.E.E.N.," but Solange's guest spot on "The Electric Lady" is a bonafide sizzler.

The warped and wigged out nature of The Electric Lady's opening tracks provide for a much quicker burst of pleasure than The Archandroid. However, The Electric Lady also feels much more like a product designed for mass consumption than The Archandroid. The opening sequence of songs comes across like a series of tracks vying strenuously for mainstream radio airplay. Some of the melodies begin to wear thin after repeating plays, and the ballads tend to lack the emotional weight supplied by some of her contemporaries in the R&B field.

However, it's Monae's specific approach that makes her such a fresh, invigorating  and adored artist. She adopts a futuristic, spacey, and funky philosophy hinted at by hip hop duo Outkast, but not really suitably explored by many well known artists since then. With the release of The Electric Lady, Monae seems primed for her biggest break yet.

Score: 88/100

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