Q.U.E.E.N. – Janelle Monai featuring Eryka Badu
67.35 min • Wonderland Arts Club / Bad Boy Records • September 6, 2013
Little Bastard reviews
It’s not often you press play on your iPhone and are presented with a jazz, soul, r’n’b concept album about a female android on the run. Well, unless you listen to Janelle Monae that is!
Janelle’s music isn’t just your usual chart fodder. All her releases are part of a bigger story, The Metropolis Suite, and if you start with The Electric Lady you’re coming in right in the middle! Her 1st EP, the Metropolis Suite 1 (The Chase) was the first in a ten part series, The ArchAndroid being parts two and three, and second album The Electric Lady being parts four and five. So, does it make sense on its own? Yes and no.
As a concept album The Electric Lady works a lot better than its predecessor, debut album The ArchAndroid, using the medium of radio skits to progress the story. Let’s not forget, this is not your run of the mill pop album – in fact it’s not really a pop album at all – it’s an alt-jazz-soul-sci fi experience that is best listened to as a whole rather than dipping in and out of when a quick pop fix is required.
Opening with ‘Suite 4 Electric Overture’, which sounds like the music from a ’70s porn film (in the best way possible), the first proper track is explosive. ‘Givin Em What They Love’, a duet with the almighty Prince, does exactly what it says on the tin. There are comparisons to be made to the Jack White and Alicia Keys duet ‘Another Way To Die’, but this song is all it’s own, and rocks and grinds as hard as you’d expect it to. Prince does very few duets, so it’s always going to be something special and this doesn’t disappoint. The second duet is also as exciting: ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, the first single, features alternative soul goddess Erykah Badu. As funky as funk gets, it begins the heavy subtext to the album, with lyrics such as
Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?
Say will your God accept me in my black and white?
It’s an understated funk of a song that I wasn’t sure about on first listen; but it had burrowed deep into my head as possibly the biggest and most enjoyable ear worm ever, and even caused me to strut down the street the singing along while the song blasted from my headphones after a couple of pints the other night (I should really stop admitting to things like this!)
Following that is difficult – but the title track, featuring the effortlessly cool Solange Knowles (yes, that’s Beyonce’s far cooler sister), is as good as any. A nice retro groove, it utilises what’s hip about both artists, if still borrowing heavily from the aforementioned Ms Badu, which would be fine, if that style wasn’t so synonymous with Erykah herself.
Next comes the first of many Radio style interludes with DJ Crash Crash, which not only help to immerse us in the world Monae has created but also, as is proved later in the album, helps lift the concept from mere Sci-Fi pretension to political and social commentary.
Will the amazing collaborations never end? Apparently not, as we fly headlong into the mid-nineties baby-making ballad ‘Primetime’, featuring alt soul crooner Miguel. Both voices are as smooth as melted chocolate and the song is as romantic as it is seductive, but it owes far more to Prince than just its New Power Generation-esque guitar solo.
Finally we’re back to usual Monae territory with ‘We Were Like Rock & Roll’. I was hooked in under a minute, and singing along to the chorus of, “We were unbreakable, we were like rock and roll,” and this is by far the catchiest and most radio-friendly track so far, harking back to the retro pop stylings of The ArchAndroid, and provides brilliant pop relief in the depths of the conceptual nu-soul surrounding it. It’s my favourite song here, and it got so stuck on repeat I nearly lost the thread of the story.
Finally, though, I got it back with another Radio interlude – this one dealing mostly with a Droid club-night, featuring an “Electro Booty Contest” and an “Atomic Kissing Contest” (which on first listen sounded far too much like an “Atomic Kitten Contest” for my liking) and then the DJ plays the new single ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ by the album’s runaway Android protagonist Cindy Mayweather.
Now, I have to admit I hated ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ on first listen. It’s very catchy, and has a great retro-radio sensibility, but it just wasn’t my thing, especially when released after the far cooler ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ – even the distorted robotic voice that closes the song, asking,
What’s the matter?
Your chicken taste like pork?
You have triplets instead of twins?
Does your food taste plastic?
didn’t save it for me. In the context of the album though, as a Cindy Mayweather single, it grates less and actually works – a lot better than ‘Look Into My Eyes’ does, a silky ’70s ballroom number that plods along nicely but is all filler, although it does segue nicely into ‘Suite V Electric Overture’, which takes the bulk of ‘Look Into My Eyes’ and transforms it into a ’70s cinematic escapade.
This leads us into the gorgeous ‘It’s Code’, and from here the album mostly stays at one, albeit beautiful, level. The groove lifts slightly with the old school funk of ‘Ghetto Woman’, but other than that we are taken from the chilled to the beautiful over and over, broken only by a radio station interlude that reveals why we are all here. It begins with a caller who is clear about her disgust regarding Cindy Mayweather’s Android status, followed by another,
Caller: Robot love is QUEER!
DJ Crash Crash: Er… What?
Caller: ROBOT LOVE is QUEER! That’s all!
DJ Crash Crash: What I wanna know is how you would know it’s queer, if you haven’t tried it?
Monae has always used the Android as a metaphor for what she refers to as “The Other”, outsiders who do not fit into society easily, due to colour, sexual orientation or gender. It’s at this moment you realise the whole sci-fi plot is a smokescreen, and that Metropolis is as much about robots as Animal Farm was about animals.
Ezsperanza Spalding tops off the amazing list of collaborators with ‘Dorothy Dandridge Eyes’ about being hypnotised by a girl with eyes like the academy award winning actress.
Yes, the album in general owes a lot to Erykah Badu. Yes, at times I find Monae pretentious for pretension’s sake, and I find her heavyweight alt soul persona a little difficult to take for someone with such a small back catalogue. But having said that, The Electric Lady is a very brave album that treads just the right line between art and commercialism. The songs, if not always catchy, are well written and the album feels cohesive in style from start to finish. My main criticism is how heavily borrowed that style feels. I understand the want to pay homage to such artists as Prince and Badu, and the fact that both appear on this album only serves to legitimise this end. My gripe comes more from the lack of self – which I felt she exuded in spades on The ArchAndroid – that she’s lost on this album. However, as uncommercial as it is, this will be the album most likely to be revered in her musical history. It’s fusion of nu funk/soul and sci-fi is at times daring, at times tawdry, but always admirable, and we need more artists like Monae that make music for a greater purpose than to be on MTV and get laid. I’m almost loath to criticise any one song, as I’m sure in the context of the story in Janelle’s own mind, it all makes perfect artistic sense. If she can strike a stronger balance between the story telling, retro radio pop and her soul funk influences she will make an incredible album. As it is, she’s made a great album that stands brilliantly in her Metropolis series, but I fear will appeal to fans of her influences rather than the fans of Janelle Monae. Give it a try, but catch up on the first two instalments first.