Whatever you think of Janelle Monáe as a singer, songwriter, and performer, this much is undeniable: She is an excellent concept. She’s a 27-year-old artsy-fartsy feminist Afro-futurist who has brought Cab Calloway’s saddle shoes, Little Richard’s pompadour, and James Brown’s dance moves back into popular culture. She makes extravagant sci-fi-themed albums that toss together hip-hop and psychedelic soul and R&B and funk and jump-blues and spaghetti-Western soundtrack music and cocktail jazz, among many other styles. There are few performers in current pop whose songs take in so much history, slapping together unexpected musical juxtapositions and flavor combinations. Listening to Monáe’s new record, The Electric Lady, I kept jotting down names: not just Calloway and Richard and Brown, but also Outkast (Big Boi is one of the album’s executive producers); Prince, who duets on one song; Parliament-Funkadelic, Sun Ra, and David Bowie, Monáe’s interstellar spirit guides; the fifties exotica composers Martin Denny and Les Baxter; Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack, Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland. In the liner notes, Monáe herself cites other muses, listing the inspirations behind each song: “Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington”; “Michael Jackson’s glistening jheri curl in ‘Thriller’ and Bo Diddley’s tremolo guitar”; “Stevie Wonder listening to Os Mutantes on vinyl (circa 1973).”
Monáe’s eclecticism and ambition have raised her to godhead status in certain circles. Her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and full-length debut The ArchAndroid (2010) were greeted with raves; along with Frank Ocean, she is the most critically ballyhooed young star in black pop. The crucial question, of course, is what Monaé’s riot of sounds and signifiers add up to, as music. For me, the answer is: not enough. The Electric Lady, Monáe’s second album, is better than The ArchAndroid, but it’s as frustrating as any record I’ve heard in a while. Monáe is an audacious talent, but her art still lags well behind her ideas.
The Electric Lady does have its moments — it’s an intermittently thrilling failure. The title track is lush funk-soul in the Earth, Wind, and Fire mold, with a chorus that’s as straightforward and beatific as the often heavy-going Monáe gets: “Electric lady / Get way down / Cause tonight we’re gon’ do what we want to.” (“Electric Lady” is also one of several passionate songs directed at women, a fact that may raise the eyebrows of gossips: In interviews, Monáe has been coy about her sexuality.) “Givin Em What They Love” is rugged funk-rock, lifted by the twinkly presence, and the delicious falsetto vocals, of Prince. There is also a fine Prince-style ballad, “Primetime,” in which Monáe and guest star Miguel trade endearments over a stark musical backdrop: creeping bass and background vocal coos, with strings and distorted electric guitar dolloped in just so.
That arrangement is a model of restraint, but holding back is not Monáe’s way. She doesn’t overcook the pudding quite as badly as she did on The ArchAndroid, but in several of The Electric Lady’s nineteen songs, Monáe keeps adding ingredients — key changes, counter-melodies, guitar solos, orchestral flourishes — in a way that feels willful. The songs wear you down; sometimes they grow downright dull.
Then there’s the sci-fi-concept-album frame. The Electric Lady comprises Suites IV and V of a projected seven-suite cycle that tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, a messianic cyborg teleported back in time to liberate the citizens of a dystopian city from the tyranny of evil robot overlords. Or something like that. As usual with albums of this sort, the “plot” just seems dopey, a suspicion not exactly dispelled by the narrative gobbledygook in the liner notes: “WE THE UNDERSIGNED STAR SENATORS HAVE FOUND THE ALLEGED RECORDING THE ELECTRIC LADY TO CONTAIN UNGOODLY MESSAGES, REVOLUTIONARY COUNTERVOODOO, AND HARMFUL WONDERVIBES … ANY DROIDS FOUND JAMMING TO SAID RECORDINGS WILL SUFFER INSTANT DISASSEMBLY IN ACCORDANCE TO CODE 909.”
Monáe is consciously embracing Afro-futurism, in which artists use science fiction to work through black history and politics. That’s all well and good, but there’s nothing much of interest in Monáe’s muddled story line — certainly none of the eerie tragicomedy of Sun Ra and P-Funk’s space explorations. In fact, Cindi Mayweather’s messianism grades into the singer’s own. Monáe, it seems clear, is not content merely to be a good musician, or even a great one. She wants to make masterpieces. The rococo embellishments, the “electric overtures” (there are two of them here), the grandiose thematic overlay: It all feels like a reach, an attempt to jump a rocket ship to Planet Genius. That’s a move, her friend Prince could tell her, that’s best left until, say, your fourth album — or at least until you’ve refined your craft and chops. Monáe’s need work. Her songwriting remains fuzzy; her singing voice is serviceable but light, lacking flavor and bite.
I rooted hard for The Electric Lady; I wanted to adore it. Pop could use a new black female heavyweight, especially one, like Monáe, whose brand of third-wave feminism is sneakier than the norm, less beholden to, ahem, the male gaze. (In both “women’s clothes” and full drag-king-mode, she is one of music’s snazziest dressers, sexy even though she shows less skin than any female star this side of Susan Boyle.) The past few years have seen accolades heaped on male R&B upstarts like Ocean, Miguel, and the Weeknd; women have largely been left out in the cold. With the obvious exceptions of those global colossi Beyoncé and Rihanna, and the trickster-princess Nicki Minaj, black women are marginal figures in today’s pop. So far, 2013 has brought excellent albums by the likes of Ciara, Fantasia, Chrisette Michele, Kelly Rowland, Dawn Richard, and the British category-buster Laura Mvula. But these records have foundered commercially and, mostly, been ignored by critics.
Monáe stands a better chance — with the music press, at the very least. (The only people who like a black bohemian more than fellow black bohemians are white rock critics.) As a performer, Monáe stands apart. She’s a dazzling dancer; her kinetic video for the single “Q.U.E.E.N.” may be the year’s best. I just wish she had songs worthy of her charisma and her concepts. The most tantalizing near miss on The Electric Lady is “Dance Apocalyptic,” a typically heady Monáe mash-up. The lyrics give a feminist spin to Juicy J’s twerk anthem “Bandz a Make Her Dance” and “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and wink at Prince’s doomsday party “1999”; the music blends Calloway jitterbug, Louis Jordan jumpin’ jive, doo-wop (“Shalang-alang-alang”), Motown, and, of course, hip-hop. It’s the kind of postmodern mash-up I love to love, but the result is less than the sum of those promising parts: It sounds small and studied, like the fussy retro-soul that wafts across the ocean from London every month or so. Wanted: more wondervibes.
The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe. Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy.
*This article originally appears in the September 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.