For how watered-down and clichéd the modern –day Hip Hop landscape has become, today’s R&B is even more so. With few notable exceptions, today’s R&B artists are either busy pretending that they’re thugs, or simply pushing hyper-sexualized lyrics that deal only with “the good life.”
Of course, to call DXnext alum Janelle Monáe an R&B artist wouldn’t quite do her justice. So what would? The female Andre 3000? A Soul singer? Afro punk? The truth is, all of these labels are limited, and if one thing is true about Ms. Monáe, it is this: limitations do not apply.
The ArchAndroid picks up where Monáe’s 2008 EP, Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase leaves off, chronicling the exploits of Cindy Mayweather, an android trying to escape persecution for falling in love. The story itself isn’t what makes The ArchAndroid (and its predecessor) remarkable – it borrows heavily from George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Rather, it is the execution of these literary themes in a musical medium that makes it such a gem.
It’s difficult to determine what’s more striking – The ArchAndroid’s production, or Monáe’s performance over it. This album is easily the most smartly-produced of 2010, and possibly of the past several years. Nothing is off-limits here: whether it’s the futuristic percussion on “Dance or Die,” the soft acoustic guitar and odd synth keys of “Sir Greendown,” or the heavy electric guitar of “Mushrooms & Roses,” the music keeps the listener constantly on their toes. Just as dynamic is Monáe, who fluctuates between primal chants, her own brand of rapping, straight crooning with her deceptively powerful voice – “Come Alive” is particularly enlightening in that respect, for those uninformed – and everything in between.
The faithfulness with which Janelle Monáe commits to her album’s concept should also be commended. The pace of each song is carefully chosen to convey how urgent or personal each “scene” in Monáe’s story is. Furthermore, she infuses the entire album with powerful subtext, with strong themes of race, religion, and class. Carefully-chosen contributors to the project, including Saul Williams and Big Boi, are welcome additions who share Monáe’s vision, serve only to augment the final product.
It’s rare that one can be equally pleased with an album as background music or as an immersive listening experience, but The ArchAndroid treads that fine line with seeming effortlessness. With this release, Janelle Monáe proves what Metropolis’ reach did not extend her grasp; it’s one thing to execute in a five-track EP, but entirely another to do so for 18 cuts (three of which clock in at 5:42, 6:01 and 8:48). ArchAndroid is nothing short of stunning, and should serve as an example to those stuck exploring exhausted archetypes. Bring on Suite IV.