It totally gets people every time I reveal this, but one of my guilty pleasures is really good R&B. Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, even Usher – these are artists who have made some of the most enjoyable music during my lifetime, and I’ve always defended them to the hilt. The best music of this kind looks back – to Michael Jackson, Prince, Motown – yet is unafraid to take cutting-edge stylistic risks: consider how ground-breaking “SexyBack” sounded back in 2006, and how derivative all JT’s slavish impersonators sound by comparison.
And now we have a new inspirational artist on the scene – except this one’s also no slouch when it comes to about a dozen other genres. I have no idea to what extent Janelle Monáe has exploded onto the scene, but a label endorsement from Puff Daddy can’t hinder matters; neither can executive production from Big Boi. More importantly, with an album like The ArchAndroid under her belt, Monáe can practically do no wrong.
This album is epic in every way: over an hour in length; packed with bells, whistles, horns and the sonic trademarks of all her influences; skipping between brassy soul and rollicking funk and pastoral folk. Even better than this wide-eyed ambition is the quality of the songwriting – and frankly, I don’t care how much or little input she had on this front, because the quality never lets up: not in the hooks, not in the beats, not even in the city-scaping, city-aping arrangements. And, best of all, Monáe’s voice is a continual delight, keenly matching the tone of each song, from the wailing Beyoncé-plus of single “Tightrope”, to the dusky husky murmurings on “57821”. Her shape-shifting reminds me of Madonna, in a way, but Monáe’s got a considerably stronger set of pipes, and arguably her stylistic decisions are as honest as they are startling and unexpected.
This album is epic in every way: over an hour in length; packed with bells, whistles, horns and the sonic trademarks of all her influences
And then we come to the lyrics. I’ll admit, she loses me a couple of times with her Afro-futurist references, but there’s no denying that her unique vision shines through. Monáe has talked of the album as being like an amalgam of song, cinema and soundtrack, and throughout she succeeds in reaching this lofty target. Using androids as a metaphor for segregated minorities is pretty clever, mind, but it’s going to take listeners a while to digest her sophisticated, tangential, self-aware phrasing.
In the meantime, we should applaud Monáe for making what is probably the pop album of 2010. It’s catchy as anthrax, and never shies away from experiments, and if she keeps on like this, she could have a Bowie-esque career ahead of her.