Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid is one of the most interesting pop albums to come along in a very long time, if its Gaga-trouncing boundary busting don’t disqualify it from the typically formulaic genre entirely.
The Metropolis meets Stankonia hour-plus journey begins with a composed classical overture before dropping through a trap door into the Saul Williams assisted Dance Or Die. Monáe is a war machine of vocal abilities. She layers thundering soul hollering that could back up James Brown underneath a rap delivery that could hold its own with Busta.
Dance Or Die flows seamlessly into Faster, with a breakneck beat that re-imagines the motown sound as if it was born from swing rather than gospel. Going into the final third of the song, the beat drops back and Janelle goes off, with a sort of scat improvisation, just opening her heart and letting words fly. She asks, “Am I a freak? Or just another little weirdo…” And then she channels His Holiness Himself, screaming with power, like Jackson 5-era pure and afro-d Michael: “You can’t zap down all my good times / I know right from wrong! / Kissing loving’s feeling good / And not this feeling down!”
Monáe has got chops that have been sorely missed in pop music since the dawn of Auto-Tune.
The strongest (and catchiest) passage of the album is the one-two punch of Cold War before the missive to lovers and haters alike Tightrope. The former is a soaring soul-searching anthem, like Gnarls Barkely’s Crazy on speed. The latter, featuring Outkast’s Big Boi, might just be the funkiest jam since they flew Bombs Over Baghdad:
It would be asking a lot to expect 18 consecutive flawless tracks of any artist. While Ms. Monáe gets credit for displaying considerable rock expertise, Make The Bus, featuring Of Montreal, sticks out like an obnoxious hipster on Soul Train. It’s a truly skippable cut in an otherwise consistent collection.
And it’s hard not to hear where some of the songs could have went with a little more work. Of course that’s a double-edged sword, as you never want to Axl an album to death, and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice a second of ArchAndroid’s freshness. But for songs which find Monáe going to so many different places vocally, the backing music, while varying enough from song to song, rarely pushes the boundaries quite as daringly from verse to chorus. The beats don’t wander very far from the street corner they start at, in other words, while Janelle is off planet-hopping.
There are a few exceptions to this complaint though, particularly the psychedelic squealing guitar-driven jam-out Mushrooms & Roses, a complementary follow-up to the Transylvanian club-banger Come Alive. Also, Wondaland is, fittingly, a hopping, skipping, bubblegum-snapping dance through a digital Harajuku Candyland.
Overall, my criticism is largely limited to nitpicks for a semblance of level-headed objectivity, and ultimately The ArchAndroid is a thoroughly brilliant, refreshing find that is sure to maintain our attention, and withstand the test of time.
Like some of the aforementioned esteemed new-school funk-mongering crossover pioneers, Janelle Monáe brings a lot more to the table than Gaga’s theatrics and costume, even more than Winehouse’s comparatively straightforward soul revival, and to our delight, advances the entire institution of pop music a step further into exciting new territory.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.