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Janelle Monae: Dreamgirl

Singer goes back to the future

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Janelle Monae is a rebel in her own mind. Today, the 23-year-old singer best known for her vocal appearances on OutKast's ill-fated Idlewild soundtrack is dressed in an orange cashmere sweater, white blouse, black slacks and saddle shoes. The small, pixielike woman looks like a bobby-soxer, but her inspiration comes from elsewhere. "I respect the past," she says, "but I'm headed for the future."

Then there's the large East Point house she's sitting in. It belongs to Delvin Franklin, her manager and member of Wondaland Productions. The floor of the basement is lined with SYNLawn, a synthetic form of grass. A few golf balls are scattered on the grass. Polo mallets and putters lie in the corner, and dozens of bottles of Pellegrino water are neatly stacked in a bookshelf. Oh, and there's a cotton-candy machine and popcorn machine, too.

Wondaland Productions is a musical collective of producers, songwriters and strategists centered on Monae, a talented vocalist with startling range. She has gathered plaudits and increasing attention since joining Big Boi of OutKast's Purple Ribbon label two years ago. Tracks such as the heavenly "Lettin' Go" and brassily assured "Call the Law" stoked buzz surrounding her forthcoming debut, Metropolis.

But if early tracks are an indication, Metropolis will outstrip any expectations of Monae's budding career. It is an avant-rock concept album based on Fritz Lang's classic 1927 German expressionist film. Musically, she explores the future as Cindy Mayweather, an Earth girl who finds a dystopian universe full of androids, evil capitalists and oppressed workers. Ironically, Monae creates this futuristic world of hers by synthesizing past inspirations: the operatic pop and hornlike sharpness of Shirley Bassey, the energetic funk of James Brown and the breezy rock and soul of OutKast.

"I've always known about this world," says Monae. "I went there all the time when I was younger; I had to." Born Janelle Robinson in Kansas City, Kan., she recalls growing up poor, her father a drug addict. She saw prostitution and family members selling drugs. "There were so many things I had to block out," she says.

"I always felt like I was trapped in this underground full of all these people that had dreams and aspirations, and they let certain things oppress them," she adds. In the film Metropolis, the underground workers who toiled at the rich elite's bidding were called the have-nots. "Growing up, seeing that at a young age, it shaped the way I am now."

Monae traveled far to get here – first to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and then to Georgia Perimeter College, where she studied science. She joined a band, BOF (Best of Friends), which played around the Atlanta University Center colleges, and sang backup for a local R&B singer named Scar. His association with Purple Ribbon finally led her to Big Boi.

In a joint venture with Purple Ribbon, Wondaland plans to release the album as four separate EPs, or suites. "We'll release a suite every three to four months," Monae says. After the suites are released, the complete Metropolis will be issued with bonus tracks. Interestingly, according to Monae, the Atlanta Ballet has agreed to perform her Metropolis in April 2008.

Monae believes all of the struggle and heartaches she endured simply prepared her for a greater purpose. "To get so much love and respect from intelligent young men and women around my age, there is no other feeling like that. 'Cause then I [know] that people listened to me, and I have the [ability] to change the world," she says. "I feel like a superhero."

Janelle Monae isn't the only artist expanding the definition of soul. Here are a few others:

Heston

Sounds like: An angelic voice that can sing over anything, from acoustic soul to broken-beat house

Listen: Storyteller (World Soul), debut album due in June

PJ Morton

Sounds like: Channels the Beatles through Stevie Wonder, and comes off like Todd Rundgren

Listen: Perfect Song (Brash Music)

Rahbi

Sounds like: Sings with Prince-like melisma over a blend of P-Funk and Southern soul, and likes to wear elaborate costumes on stage

Listen: The EP (self-released)

Heavy Mojo

Sounds like: This band kills it live with funky rap-rock much fresher than your average rap-rock bar band

Listen: Blow Out the Sound (Jank Recordings)

Khari Simmons

Sounds like: This former bassist for India.Arie works on projects that mix Brazilian bossa nova with lounge and house

Listen: Khari Simmons and Julie Dexter, Moon Bossa (Brash Music)


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