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Review: The ArchAndroid casts Janelle Monáe phantom of the popera

Can Atlanta’s critical darling break on through to the commercial side?



Since debuting in 2007, retro-futuristic R&B singer Janelle Monáe has received fawning coverage from just about every pop-conscious media outlet imaginable. Traditional music mags Rolling Stone and Spin raved over her genre-defying sounds; Vogue spotlighted her hyper-stylized fashion sense, not once, not twice, but three times; and NPR applauded her theatrically informed debut EP on "Fresh Air." Even a lesbian-focused website called Autostraddle championed this Atlanta (by way of Kansas) pompadoured sprite, calling her "androgynous" and adding: "We want Monáe to be a lesbian, mostly 'cause we're attracted to her." Forget Barack Obama; if there's one person the liberal media elite can agree on, it's Janelle Monáe.

Too bad none of that means jack. As the cancellation of critically beloved TV show "Arrested Development" shows us, having the media on your side doesn't necessarily translate to radio spins. In Monáe's case, all the accolades in the world – and even a 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance – couldn't spur sales. To date, she has moved about as many copies in her career as Justin Bieber sells while he's feathering his bangs. Her debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite got a widespread release in 2008, entering the Billboard 200 at No. 115. It sold some 5,000 copies before unceremoniously dropping off the charts.

Her new album, The ArchAndroid, again has the industry and the media behind it, and it's more than compelling enough to justify the hype. So hopefully the country will get on board this time. Seriously, WTF is wrong with you, America? Perhaps Monáe's small body of work — up until now she's only had the EP and some guest appearances under her belt — is why she has yet to take hold. But she should. Her songs aren't caustically experimental, but they take enough risks to make listeners feel smart. Equally important is her edgy yet old-fashioned personal style, buttoned-up yet button-cute, a timeless tuxedo look that appeals both to men and feminists tired of the gussied-up Katy Perry types who dominate pop music. If this isn't enough to capture the NPR-and-hybrids demographic — and, really, in this era of market segmentation, that's all you need to be a success — the goo-goo Gaga mind-set of our collective pop consciousness must be much worse than previously estimated.

The good news is that Monáe's weak numbers haven't put off backers Big Boi, Diddy, and Atlantic Records. And so, on the heels of her first full-length release, The ArchAndroid, she has major corporate backing and a publicity machine in overdrive. In these days of declining record sales, artists aren't expected to go gold or platinum right out of the gate, if only because practically nobody goes gold or platinum anymore. It's especially impressive that a traditionally by-the-numbers boss hog exec like Diddy believes so strongly in someone who calls herself an android and claims she doesn't care about sales. "I forgot about [commercial expectations] totally," she told me by phone during a recent interview. "The most important thing was making sure that the music was jamming, and that we loved it."

The album contains suites II and III of Monáe's larger serial, Metropolis, picking up where The Chase Suite left off. It is also set in the futuristic mega-city of Metropolis, modeled on the dystopian burg of director Fritz Lang's 1927 eponymous film. The first installment saw Monáe's protagonist — an alter-ego android named Cindi Mayweather — draw the evil empire's wrath by falling in love with a human. Suites II and III again find the character battling the powers that be. Realizing she is the incarnation of a mythical figure called the ArchAndroid (similar to Neo from The Matrix), she sets about breaking spells that have been cast upon the android community, and a class war ensues. But where the EP focused more on themes of oppression and social change, The ArchAndroid is especially concerned with personal evolution. "It deals with self-realization and connecting to your superpowers, owning them and using the things that make you unique," she said.

While The Chase Suite was a fresh-sounding bundle of creative energy, it suffered from a slight lack of focus and some clichéd moments, such as the unimaginatively political "Mr. President." But Monae has made creative strides since then. She's no longer forcing her ideas, instead giving them the opportunity to develop naturally, and laboring over tracks until she gets them just right. The new album was originally due in early 2009, but Monáe spent an extra year composing and fine-tuning it. She recorded in spots around the world including Moscow, Prague and Istanbul, and even mined her dreams. "I would get up in the middle of the night and record everything I could remember on my iPhone, whether it was a full song or a melody or a character," she said. "I knew that if I kept myself open and available, and was patient, that all these ideas would come to me."

The ArchAndroid is a fully-realized vision, one that embraces literally dozens of musical touchstones. OutKast is the obvious influence, but it also channels Prince, Judy Garland and even composer John Williams. "I think it's very important to know and remember who came before you, and study all the things that made them great," Monáe says. "But I have a huge responsibility to the future, and to come up with new concepts and ideas." And so, in this spirit, the 18-track work kicks off with a classical overture, and then segues into snips of psychedelic art pop, screaming dance-punk, depression-era folk, reworked '60s standards, funk, jazz and modern-feeling R&B. Guests include everyone from former slam poet Saul Williams to Big Boi to indie rock favorites Of Montreal.

Somehow it all gels, due in large part to the talents of Monáe's flamboyantly named producers and composers, Nate "Rocket" Wonder, Chuck Lightning and Roman GianArthur. They obsessed over the album's sonic details, using custom-crafted mics from a California-based audio company and enlisting a group they call the Wondaland ArchOrchestra for the lush, string-heavy score. Their efforts paid off. The ArchAndroid sounds huge, something like the musical equivalent of Avatar, and seems to demand surround-sound speakers and a glass of good Cabernet. (Or motor oil, as it were.)

Though the album won't likely hit the colossal numbers associated with more run-of-the-mill R&B/jazz chanteuses like Alicia Keys or Norah Jones, with any luck it will go top 10, like the last album from Solange Knowles, the eccentric sister of Beyoncé to whom Monáe is frequently compared. Some songs on ArchAndroid wouldn't feel out of place on the radio, particularly the funk-driven Big Boi collaboration, "Tightrope," the bubblegum "Wondaland," and "Cold War," which is accented by '80s synths and is as dramatic as a Kate Bush composition. The lyrics on the latter piece aren't particularly memorable – "This is a cold war/You'd better know what you're fighting for," and that's true of many of the songs on the album. Before coming to Atlanta, Monáe moved to New York with dreams of performing on Broadway, and – similar to a big budget musical – The ArchAndroid's wordplay is designed to propel the story along rather than to stand alone as musical poetry. "I should run/Faster and faster/I should run/Faster and faster/From your arms," she sings on "Faster," describing the potentially perilous attraction between two characters. "I'm locked inside/A land called Foolish Pride/Where the man is always right/He hates to talk but loves to fight," she sings on the next track, "Locked Inside." Monáe calls the work an "emotion picture," and while that sounds fairly pompous, it's actually a good descriptor. Stripped of context, you would almost certainly mistake the album for a soundtrack, or an original Broadway cast recording.

For all of The ArchAndroid's anguished cries, dashing gallantry and displays of superpowers, there's a shortage of genuine human emotion. (Although perhaps that's an unfair critique, what with Monáe considering herself an android.) Despite her cinematic intentions, the fact remains that this is a good old-fashioned album, but it doesn't always succeed on those terms. Her ability to compellingly convey universal truths still has a ways to go before it catches up with her ability to create moods and images.

But these are small complaints, and indeed The ArchAndroid's dizzying ambition is refreshing. Monáe may or may not be androgynous, but her music is downright ballsy. Occasionally, critical and commercial opinion collide, on your OutKasts, your Seinfelds, your Radioheads. But in any case, it's refreshing to know that such epic industry forces are willing to take a gamble on a unique talent.

At the very least, you can be sure The ArchAndroid will thrill our country's magazine writers, newspaper scribes and radio hosts. Once in a blue moon, those people actually know what they're talking about.

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