By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
The way Afrofuturist singer Janelle Monáe talks about balance, you'd think she was an acrobat. For example, when discussing the meaning behind her current single, "Tightrope" (featuring Big Boi), she touts the importance of avoiding emotionally detrimental extremes.
Monáe says the single is similar in spirit to James Brown's late-1960s anthems of inner confidence, one of which she quotes from, citing the message as, "I don't want nobody to give me nothing/I'll get it myself." She adds, "I wanted to have an inspirational song that dealt with something I hadn't heard talked about recently, and that's how we need to have balance. Especially if you're a leader, [you should] never get too high or too low."
But Monáe isn't an acrobat per se, though she has plenty going on in her life to weigh and harmonize. The 25-year-old Kansas transplant operates out of Atlanta, where she initially found success with the help of OutKast's Big Boi, who welcomed her into his Purple Ribbon camp. She is a businesswoman and leader within the Wondaland Arts Society, an independent collective that hosts Salvador Dalí–inspired painting parties, performance art showcases, and meditation sessions, and houses a studio and label Monáe shares with her executive producers, Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, aka funked-up duo Deep Cotton.
As the art-fueled spitfire will tell you, though, she mainly works on balance because she's an unswerving android. But not just any android. She's The ArchAndroid. according to the name of her full-length debut, which will be released May 18.
Monáe describes The ArchAndroid as an "emotion picture" and a continuation of a work she began several years ago. It gathers Suites II and III of the four-suite storyline of Monáe's cybernetic alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, who was first introduced on her self-released Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase EP in 2007. The EP was rereleased in 2008 after Monáe signed with P. Diddy, who was introduced to her material through Big Boi and MySpace.
"Tightrope" is the centerpiece, showing off a funky clatter that balances classy brass and ukulele flourishes within one of the album's 18 torrents of jam-generated, hip-hop–augmented rhythm and brews. The single's B-side, also on The ArchAndroid, is the more overtly OutKast-esque slapback robofunk caper "Cold War."
Other tracks sound like calliopes of wailing soul pulled from the title themes of secret agent cinema, with thrown-wide guitar trills, string swells, and churning organs. The record also features combinations of emulsified "Crimson and Clover"–style melodies, fidgety percussion, and plucky bass. Monáe threads strong feminist themes and utopian pleas throughout varying tempos and hallucinatory hypersoul arrangements.
Monáe's abstract conceptual streak has attracted such sonically kaleidoscopic patrons as Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. He took the nattily dressed singer on tour, produced one ArchAndroid.track, and had her perform on his band's in-process 10th album, False Priest. Of their artistic exchange, he says they "contributed an equal amount of the same thing: a benevolent howling, as well as love, support, motivation, [and] renewed faith in the replicant's sacrifice."
Monáe calls her adventurous, creatively unfiltered contemporaries like Barnes "thrivals," and says of their talents, "We want to use our superpowers for great things, especially pertaining to art."
There's a lot of artistic potential for Monáe to balance. Speak to her long enough, and you'll hear of graphic novels, thematic music video collections, and other future creations intended to expound on the Metropolis narrative of The ArchAndroid. But she remains centered as a leader of R&B's return to its roots in assertive personal visions. The performer navigates the tightrope away from the economics-driven guest star emphasis of the major label system to focus instead on a greater uplifting purpose.