It actually took several listens to Janelle Monae’s full length album debut The ArchAndroid to fully grasp it’s musical virtues before even being able to review it in my head,lead alone here in black and white. That was several years ago. And the review I did do here only came after seeing her live in concert a year after that. It was a truly captivating experience: “united funk” all the way-meaningful grooves,messages and an enormous amount of involvement and communication with the audience. Strangely enough after that,a certain level of cynicism began to sink in on my part. Attitudes like…what if Monae’s intense creativity was a gimmicky fluke? Would she become a generic artist pimping the pleasure principle like so many the next time,to sell more albums? And had the early 1990’s style critical negativity gotten to me at last? How selfish of me. Here was the very fulfillment of the musical desires and imaginative ideas I’d had since adolescence manifesting itself before my eyes. Why reject that for the sake of psychically numb realism? When I heard earlier in the year her follow up was about to arrive,it was a summer of waiting with baited breath to here the musical fruits of her passions. With no hyperbole intended,I am astounded with what was heard!
Beginning with “Electric Overture”, Suit IV a swirling blend of cinema and surf rock guitar we go into “Givin’ Em What They Love”-a thudding and minimal funk-rocker featuring of course Prince himself. Having heard a version of “Q.U.E.E.N” during the summer,this Erykah Badu duet is a superbly realized Minneapolis style rhythm guitar/spicy boogie funk synthesizer. “Electric Lady” slows the groove right down to a crawl with this heavily texturized electronics bubbling up from an heavily reverbed drum and bass line-Monae and Solange Knowles’s voice blending into perfect harmony. On “Primetime” Janelle and Miguel’s male/female duet is set within the musical framework of another spare,lightly beat heavy (and therefore very funky) mid tempo ballad. “We’re Only Rock ‘N Roll” jumps right into a sleeker interpretation of the classic James Brown groove than on the previous albums “Tightrope”-as well as having a more melodically constructed song craft about it. “The Dance Apocalyptic” goes right for the heart of this uptempo Caribbean-type funk jaunt while “Look Into My Eyes” brings in the Spanish tinge with a sensually flamenco inflected tango.
Suit V begins with the beautifully cinematic orchestral 60’s type next part of the “electric overture” before going into the early 70’s Chicago soul inspired “It’s Code” which,along with “Can’t Live Without Your Love” and “Victory” bring out that “sweet funk” sound of that specific musical ethic. With it’s theatrical blend of synthesizer bass and intense rhythm “Ghetto Woman” is complexly melodic electronic funk like you’ve never heard it before-asking for sympathy for it’s character rather than the derision of society.”Sally Ride” is a tight,slowed down foot stomper of a jam that’s full of honesty and a little attitude. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”,with the equally talented Esperanza Spalding,is absolutely amazing-with it’s thorough understanding of jazzy style keyboard textures and sensual,truth telling rhythms. Not to mention melodic and harmony suggestions that are alternately passionate and paranoid in the best heavy on easy sophistifunk fashion before ending the album with the slow and dynamic boogie funk of “What An Experience”.
Many of the songs on this album feature interludes such as “Good Morning Midnight”,”The Chrome Shoppe” and “Our Favorite Fugitive”,narrated by DJ Crash Crash that illustrate this albums concept. Cindy Mayweather,the space faring archandroid has arrived at the threshold of an apocalypse-with only a group of Mayweather clones called the Electric Ladies providing a degree of satisfaction. Is it another P-Funk like conceptual tract? Not at all. This album is full of many different variations of what actually turns out to be a very important message to the listener. In an environment where a culture itself is almost entirely ruled by fear of one thing or another without realizing it,the best way to live life is to be aware and gain knowledge. But also to be in a position where you can change things for the better. This theme isn’t illustrated by mere preaching. There’s a theatrical storyline just as with her first two releases,as well as a set of characters with their own situations. The stage was set,the players were in place for this album and Janelle Monae more than showed she could dance-literally and figuratively. She has affirmed her place as the much needed innovator of the funk/soul/jazz/R&B spectrum and did so by diving head long into the funky gumbo of Stevie Wonder,Prince,James Brown,Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield that she channels into her musical orbit. An amazing piece of music that,on many levels,words may not be able to adequately describe.
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