By Kevin Rutherford
This week sees the release of The Electric Lady, the much-anticipated second album from Janelle Monáe. The album continues the storyline of Cindi Mayweather, an android living in a futuristic Metropolis who rails against society to become a leading figure for the minority android community.
The album operates out of the science fiction concept Monáe established early on, beginning with 2007′s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP and continuing into The ArchAndroid, the Kansas City native’s 2010 GRAMMY-nominated debut full-length. That artistic brushstroke could be why Monáe won’t hit the pop charts anytime soon — certainly not with The Electric Lady. Top 40 just ain’t ready for sci-fi.
The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady exist in a fictional future — or perhaps another dimension altogether. That’s not to say there aren’t personal lyrics in Monáe’s music, but it’s tougher to decipher, less obvious, shrouded in the veil of science fiction.
But sci-fi hasn’t exactly found a home on pop radio. Sure, Major Tom is a character oft-featured on the radio — or was — while Elton John, Pink Floyd, Styx and more have inserted a little otherworldly love onto the pop charts. Bowie practically made his name with being otherworldly. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was a coup for sci-fi on radio that still gets airplay today, with its dystopian schoolyard. Yeah, there were some occasional triumphs — but they were few and far between.
More recently? Daft Punk struck a chord with Random Access Memories, but the album is less conceptual and more a celebration of music’s past. Lyrically, the songs are still highly relatable, with “Get Lucky” serving as an ode perseverance in any field, sexual or otherwise.
When science fiction does find its way onto the charts, it’s generally in a rock format and with bands that have been around for years — which is to say, classic rock. George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic bands — both Monáe contemporaries — nailed down some definite sci-fi influences, be it on album or onstage, but both acts are still definitely in a classic format that don’t come around here no more.
That’s not to say Monáe’s music is rife with sci-fi imagery; in terms of many individual songs, it’s not. But while certain tracks can certainly exist outside the album medium, it’s tougher to relate a concept to pop radio when it wasn’t necessarily written for it. Even her amazing and not really adventurous lyrically speaking “Tightrope” was lukewarm with radio, and not even a guest spot from Big Boi could push it onto the airwaves.
Monáe met with the same blockage for Electric Lady. “Q.U.E.E.N.” finds her preaching individuality and forward progress for a unified class. Here, it could mean androidkind or humankind, but when it’s put against the backdrop of the rest of the album, the relatability is lost. “Dance Apocalyptic,” the second single, references an end of the world scenario that shouldn’t be feared; instead, find “a way to freak out,” before sidling into a spoken-word outro with a robotic voice.
So far, the album’s only radio victory has been “Q.U.E.E.N.,” but that’s not even saying much. The song peaked at No. 47 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for Monáe’s intent. In an interview with Pitchfork, she admitted that with the new album, the idea was to innovate, but also to try for radio play. “Last time, I was really focused on the performance, and I didn’t want to do radio,” she said. “This time, I said, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ I believe in these songs even if they don’t make it on the radio, but why not try?” Later, she asserts that Wondaland, her label, is “focused on getting great music on the radio.”
But is that even possible, given Monáe’s vision? Her partnership with Diddy is just that — a partnership. The rapper helps promote her music and releases it on his Bad Boy imprint, but Monáe is always quick to assert complete creative control. She’s doing exactly what she wants to do with her music, which right now is a seven-part futuristic suite about a cyborg who strives for android rights and the abolition of social stratification. Such music hasn’t exactly found its foothold on the airwaves just yet.
It’s not a question of the music and instrumentation, per se. Though her albums are set in a futuristic world, Monáe’s music is incredibly retro, dipping into old school funk, R&B and soul on a number of occasions. Lately, artists like Adele and especially Bruno Mars have proven that songs referencing another time and place — or even transporting to another decade entirely, in the case of Mars’s “Treasure” — can be pop hits, sometimes pop juggernauts.
It’s just that sci-fi and pop airplay haven’t found that perfect union yet — if at all.
It’s been shown that sci-fi and Monáe’s brand of alt-R&B can actually find a major audience in more modern times. Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” felt futuristic mostly from its video, which found Misdemeanor in plenty of strange garb, but also borrowed heavily from funk in its instrumentation, helped prominently by a bouncing bassline beneath a sample of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” on the chorus. Outkast had ATLiens, which fused space-themed production sounds into the rap duo’s brand of southern hip hop. Oh, and then there was “Prototype,” the fourth single from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a sci-fi video in its own right with Andre 3000 playing an alien who came to earth in search of love. The song has a classic soul/rock sound that acts as a perfect precursor to what Monáe is doing today.
But with Outkast and Elliott, their music didn’t often delve into a futuristic world completely — and even then, it still felt rooted to present-day. Music can teleport listeners to another place, but most of the time it’s best to still have some semblance of reality. While there no doubt are parallels to our world in Monáe’s music, it feels too much at an arm’s length — separate, rather than similar.
That’s unfortunate, because while the radio push has been fruitless, Monáe’s justified in believing in The Electric Lady, a 19-track journey into a world where Mayweather has become a messianic figure for her robotkind. Little flourishes, such as brief interludes during which a radio deejay takes calls from both benefactors and detractors to Monáe’s cause, plus the album’s cohesive, unified approach make for a rewarding listening experience. Kellindo Parker’s guitar work puts him up there with some of funk’s best modern string-masters. All told, it’s an incredibly catchy affair, with “Q.U.E.E.N.” being an inescapable ear-worm. The album as a whole is ebullient, and dances around every corner.
But all told, the message is so diluted in futuristic imagery and veiled lyricism that even the middle-of-the-road material still seems a bit out of this world. Monáe isn’t like your average pop star; in fact, she seems positively alien compared to most. That unfamiliarity, a departure from the status quo, just hasn’t caught on as a major driving force. It’s still just too weird for Top 40.
There are broad messages within The Electric Lady that aren’t so futuristic; “Victory” finds her “singing until the pain goes,” while “Primetime” is a pleasant duet with Miguel that’s more soul-bearing than secretive. But while Monáe’s sci-fi Metropolis trudges on, connecting to the mainstream may continue to be a tall order, paving the way for critical acclaim minus superstardom.