Released: May 18, 2010
Label: Big Beat Records
With the turn of the decade came numerous exploits and experimentations in music. The 2010’s needed a saga, a staple for generations to come of the consummation of pop mastery and skill. In Janelle Monae’s eyes, the seed had been planted already in her Metropolis EP. Her entire body of work from then to present day represents the narrative of her various alter egos, the themes of individuality and personal freedom, and the struggles and triumphs achieved therein through long-suffering battles with the societal structures that bind generations of people. She is a mysterious yet fascinating personality, boldly chic and possessive of the inner qualities and charisma to rock a myriad of genres, yet executes it all to a stellar degree. The ArchAndroid is fierce, progressive, and beautifully crafted with class and maturity, yet it disguises itself with a nonchalant pop exterior. Peel back the layers, and any learned listener can discover how the sheer genius and definitive importance this record and concept at large affect musical culture and society as a whole.
The ArchAndroid launches into a veil of classical strings and elegant piano interlude, beautifully sojourning this extravagant journey prepared to shove off. From there, the grooving rhythms of “Dance or Die” present a momentous surge of energy, compiling Monae’s soulful vocals, low-key emceeing ability, and poised words of hope and power. Saul Williams accompanies on this opening number, but the spotlight rightfully shifts to the star of the narrative. Janelle Monae is Cindi Mayweather, an android, or robot exiled, on the run at the risk of persecution for eloping with a human, Sir Anthony Greendown. As intriguing as this story goes, what inflates the credibility of Monae’s masterpiece is her inhibition and demeanor translated to real life. This era marked the makings of her introduction to a wider audience, and public appearances and performances were often conducted while wearing a tuxedo. As evidenced by the outcast nature of Cindi Mayweather in The ArchAndroid, the greater portion of the morals provided through these songs revolves around the underdog nature of the characters. Mayweather represents the nature of the love and compassion each being deserves, and is righteously fighting for. Monae’s real life presence is mirrored by these convictions, and perhaps marked in a physical nature with androgynous appearance of the tuxedo, or her work fighting for equal rights.
The opening sequence on Suite II, as mentioned, stretches from “Dance or Die” all the way through “Tightrope”, covering a solid 20 minutes of run time. The tracks truly function as one extended play, where although official listing on the fine print is merely a formality, Janelle Monae is channeling the distinct qualities of each pop influence she grasps. Effortlessly, she finds upbeat swing motive, rock balladry (fully realized on “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”, and soulful croons, posing as some sort of Off The Wall era Michael Jackson cut copy reborn with feminine mien. Her artful mastery as a shape shifting pop wizard is a marvel, and all of this is occurring in just the first half of the record. Hip-hop, though played out in minute samples also makes its way forward. Where “Cold War” beckons emotional connection with the protagonist, Monae bursts forth with the exuberance of Andre 3000 on the lovably catchy “Tightrope“, suitably featuring Dre’s partner in crime, Big Boi. In the same light, glimpses of affinity for Ms. Lauryn Hill and other pioneering female emcees are played out further in her speech and demeanor.
Continuing on towards Suite III, the second half of The ArchAndroid, playful pop numbers take a backseat to mellower marks of pure vocal pompousness and tinkering strings. The robotic stoicism of Cindi Mayweather rings in the transition on “Mushrooms & Roses”, followed by the soulful “Neon Valley Street”, again reminding the audience of the intense diversity of influence and balance Janelle Monae thrusts on the listener. Coincidentally enough, her classical talents as a singing prodigy are prefaced on Suite II with “Oh Maker”. The magic of the song is found not only in the two-fold grasp of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” guitar picking and downtrodden lyrics reminiscent of “Kathy’s Song“, but also in the excellence of Monae solely as a vocal talent. Her humanistic qualities as a tasteful and beautiful sound emitting from her lips and balanced with traces of the android tendencies of Suite III’s middle portions. Much like the two faces fight back and forth as Monae demonstrates with the narrative, so it speaks to greater facets of her sense of self. She is sexy, but in an unorthodox definition compared to society’s shallow depiction. The modern ideals of sensuality and lust are far from Monae’s image; whether she dresses in tuxedo, in exquisite dress or fancy jewelry, her icon screams class tried and true.
As rewarding as Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is over its eighteen track running time, the conclusion parts with somber details of the forbidden love not yet blossoming into fruition. The last three songs specifically again take a classical approach to songwriting, pairing Monae with a backing choir, harmonizing along with her voice and the accompanying strings and further instrumentation. Between these aspects and the last facet of backstory concerning Sir Greendown and Cindi Mayweather, the final combination of “Say You Will” into “BabopbyeYa” provides a fitting end to the portion of this fantasy. Touching again on it’s belletristic genesis, Suite III plays out as if the whole thing was a stage performance, with spectators watching the entire play unfold in seated row. The ArchAndroid is merely another piece of the complete tale. We are now at intermission.