Back in 1994, Harve Pierre urged Bad Boy upstart Craig Mack to “kick that old robotic, futuristic, George Jetson crazy joint,” which later became “Flava In Ya Ear.” The post-Notorious B.I.G. era has seen many of the label’s artists experience a failure to launch due to failed crossover attempts and the occasional, televised cheesecake run. But Janelle Monae could be the one to finally deliver the necessary departure from the norm.
On her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Monae goes way past anything ever conjured up on The Jetsons. The transplant ATLien incorporates elements from Blade Runner, and Fritz Lang‘s obscure 1927 sci-fi classic, which her debut draws its name from. Comprised of only a scant five songs, if you opt for the standard version, Metropolis is a brief, yet potent listen. Her apprenticeship as a part of Big Boi‘s Purple Ribbon label yields “Violent Stars Happy Hunting!” which boasts a retro-funk beat on par with Andre 3000’s turn on “Hey Ya.” On the former, Monae casts herself as the deluxe android Cindi Mayweather singing, “I’m an alien from outer space/I’m a cyber-girl without a face, a heart or a mind.”
Even without the random interplanetary references and notions of forbidden robot love, Metropolis has the type of production that takes its cues from something made in the past, as well as the future. The drums hit hard, and when combined with the synth keys, strings and the occasional electric guitar, they make for an oddly enjoyable mix.
But the real treats start when Diddy‘s protégé dials things down and comes back to Earth for some much needed real talk. “Sincerely, Jane” evokes thoughts of her turbulent upbringing in Northeast Kansas with lines like, “One, two, three, four your cousins is out here sellin’ dope/while they daddy your uncle is walkin ’round strung out/babies with babies and their tears keep burning/while the dreams go down the drain now.”
Additionally, all this comes without any vocal parlor tricks–there are no guest appearances. Vocally, Monae easily transitions from a lithe falsetto to unleashing the surprisingly powerful vibrato she displayed on both Idlewild and Got Purp? Vol. II. Those who spring for the special edition get the added treat of the songs “Smile” and “Mr. President,” which were not available on the original EP. Both cuts add gravity to the album, without taking away from the overall theme.
Only time will tell if Janelle Monae can avoid the tragic career crashes that have plagued so many of her predecessors at Bad Boy. If she can remain consistent, and Diddy can avoid the temptation to tamper with her sound, Monae could eventually find her name mentioned in the stratosphere of iconic vocalists such as Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige.