Janelle Monáe has released her first full-length album — The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV) — and she’s a syncretic force to be reckoned with. She’s got all the flair and outness of Lady Gaga, but brings serious chops and conceptual courage to the table. I’ve listened to the album once all the way through, and in every song I hear a dozen influences mashed up into something new and challenging. I hear mid-1980s Prince and Michael Jackson, classic Jackie Wilson, punk-era Blondie to Daft Punk to the retro-swing of the Stray Cats, Lauren Hill, Jessye Norman, Debussy, high concept prog rock, and on and on and on. It’s experimental, narrative, androgynous, boldly original. Much of it is really weird, some of it is a bit off-putting; most of it is funky. One song scared my 10 month-old son, and then the next had him bouncing up and down to the beat.
Brentin Mock writes on TheAtlantic.com:
Monáe has given pop music its first Toni Morrison moment, where fantasy, funk, and the ancestors come together for an experience that evolves one’s soul. It’s been attempted before: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, I think, but that failed because it lacked the courage to carry its struggle to the finish, too often interrupted by gooey songs (“Escapade”) that reminded us she’s still a mere mortal who believes girls just wanna have fun, just like you. Listening to Monáe, I felt a chromatic charge, like Aunty Entity laughing while pointing a crossbow at my heart in the middle of Thunderdome. Yet I still recognized it as blues and funk—a smothered funk, though perhaps at times too thick, too inaccessible, but not so much I didn’t want to shake my ass. It was like the first time I read Beloved, or better Song of Solomon—I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but I knew I felt 100 feet taller after reading it.
You can get a sense of her style (as well as her moves) in this video for the first single off the album, “Tightrope,” a funky dance number that quotes Ingmar Bergman and features Outkast’s Big Boi in all his aesthetic glory.