Self Love, Rule Breaking and a Modern Music Party: A Review of Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady
I love when music tries to tell a story. Some of the best songs tell harrowing tales of loss or suffering. It takes real talent from artists and musical producers to create the classic musical stories that I’ve grown up listening to. What has really stunned me over the years, has been the idea of taking a story or theme or concept and producing an entire album’s worth of content for it. Concept albums are a fascinating way of narrowing focus in some way or another. The best concept albums however, are contradictory. The focus applied to the music by the musician across several tracks can sometimes act as a guide for listeners, taking us on a journey that in the end feels even more open. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Janelle Monáe, whose album, “The Electric Lady” focuses on identity, emotion, experience, and rebellion. Having heard “The Electric Lady” and Monáe’s other studio recordings in full numerous times, I still could not tell you what the exact story being told across 3 full records is. I know Monáe plays the character of Cindi Mayweather, a persecuted android rebellion leader, and my knowledge of how the story works ends there. I could however, tell you the spirit being conveyed. In the case of this latest work, the spirit almost is the story. Like any good story, the characters, no matter how fictional, convey emotions that are relatable, not just to the creator, but to the consumers, and the duality between the specific and the universal is something that Monáe loves to play on.
“Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am” –Q.U.E.E.N.
Midway through a song questioning haters, both of herself and of everyone, Janelle Monáe stops and proclaims this simple yet reaffirming line. The song ends with Monáe (clad in her trademark tuxedo in the accompanying video) rapping a verse so strong that it might be the highlight of the album. It’s a clear message to detractors of her own and those who uphold the inequality of others as well. You can’t stop self-love, greatness, and defiance, both personal and physical (“March to the streets cause I’m willing and I’m able, Categorize me, I defy every label”). And of course this powerful defiant rap transitions perfectly to the title track, a song that follows up on her promise to love who she is. “Electric Lady” embodies the contradictory nature of the concept in one song. Janelle Monáe, Cindi Mayweather, is the Electric Lady, but she makes it clear that this is affirmation and love for more than just herself. These emotions are not contained in this album and when listening, the music truly breathes life into you.
The album is split into two halves, Suite IV and Suite V, continuing from Monáe’s previous works, and Suite IV, featuring appearances from Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange, and Miguel, feels like the stronger half, but that’s only because it spans a greater range of human (and android?) emotion. Monae’s second half eventually slows down the momentum of the album, going from the romantic passion and energy of songs such as “PrimeTime” and “Dance Apocalyptic”, to the more somber (“Victory”) and reflective (“What an Experience”). The shift in energy can be jarring if unexpected, but it is only a slight challenge that is well met by the musical talents of Monáe. Across the entire album Monáe commits to experimenting with various styles of music, attempting to play with sounds that dip into one genre or another. The spirit of rebellious behavior blends into the spirt of dance. The electric guitar fits right in singing the song that is passionate love in the middle of an R&B duet. Janelle Monáe proves in The Electric Lady that she is all about defying convention, playing with expectations, and welcoming listeners who do the same.