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.
*For Original Amazon Review,Follow This Link:
Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Esperanza Spalding, Funk, Janelle Monae, Minneapolis, Prince, Solange', Soul, Stevie Wonder, Women
During the time this was released,as another review pointed out,this kind of music was being thrown in everyone’s face whether they wanted to hear it or not.I must admit in the late 90’s I was far more energized by the music of Prince,Stevie Wonder,P-Funk and they like and not the various hip-hop music’s they were inspiring at the time. I wanted the “real thing”. To my way of thinking the whole hip-hop/R&B genre in general seemed to be exploiting R&B’s past just to promote cut-and-paste music based on samples and such. It was hard to not that in the midst of all that original new hybrids like this were being created.Yes it was heavily hyped,yes it was deemed a classic before by the time it was a year old or so. But all the saturation aside I wanted to listen to this after it’d had some time to influence people. Well it turned out,as I said to be just over a decade. And after listening to this project as a whole at this point I get it.This is THE album that inspired the thoughtful,conscious solo female neo soul genre out of which has come Macy Gray,Angie Stone,India.Arie,Alicia Keys and more recently Solange Knowles.But it all started here.
The music on this album still has close links to hip-hop.Songs such as “Lost Ones”,”Forgive Them Father” and even the hugely popular “Doo Wop (That Thing)” have Lauryn rapping quite a bit along with singing.It’s to her credit she has such broad talent in both.Lauryn’s rapping style has always been assertive,direct and too the point and her deep,gritty and rangy voice-with it’s strong pathos and emotion is quite the spectacle to behold. The emotional and spiritual breadth of songs such as “To Zion” and “Forgive Them Father” is unbelievable. Through her spiritual quests Lauryn revolves her own issues with femaninity and the male players in her life in a surprisingly broad scope.”Superstar” actually finds Lauryn illustrating a pointed sense of humor to address what she saw as a serious issues;the hype many mediocre or plain “wack” rappers were receiving at that time,and in every way the message behind the tune resonates all the more today.
The first five songs actually containing interwoven interludes (tastefully done and integrated into the actual songs unlike usual) that illustrate how the album title is part of a certain concept;a group of women,one voiced by Mary J Blige in a classroom discussing different,mature points of view on love from songs,actual relationships,etc.In the midst of all this is “Ex-Factor”,possibly one of the greatest songs Lauryn ever did-very much in the Aretha/Etta James spirit with it’s scarred outlook on love and strong gospel overtones,from organ swirls to the horn blasts. The tone of that song is repeated on the title song which extends on the same theme of rediscovering self truths at reaching physical and emotional maturity. Along the way there is even time for warm nostalgic reflection on “Every Ghetto,Every City”,a wah-wah drenched 70’s style funk fest which is right up my alley and the lyrics are right on time too.
There are two tracks,which are listed here but not on the album jacket.One is a beautifully soulful rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” that utterly transforms the song from teen romance into intense passion.A live version of the song “Tell Me” is also included.Taken together this quirky artist with her uniquely self reliant outlook and terrific lyrical ability only seems to have released one full length studio album so far.And if this is her first and only release it would sure be a good thing to stand on because,given a full decade to gestate it really has had an influence on an entire sub genre that has grown to mammoth proportions ever since.And all the while this done now indeed stand alone as a modern classic.
Originally Written On March 5th,2009
*Link To My Original Amazon Review:
Being the youngest sister in a musical family can be a challenge. You can ask Janet Jackson,Pat Sylvers DeRusso. And today it would be Solange Knowles. Stereotypically she has always tended to be in Beyonce’s better promoted performance shadow-focusing on songwriting and musicianship to a stronger degree over Beyonce’s celebrity orientations. Sadly,Solange has entered into a controversy recently that could have the potential to spoil her strong reputation as a funky soul singer/songwriter. Personally? I feel these two factors which were just mentioned are interrelated. Yet during the course of this week as the matter involving her and her sisters marriage,which I refuse to get into here,has unfolded it seemed appropriate to do my own part to focus on Solange’s important musical accomplishments as opposed to any yellow journalism that currently follows behind her. And one of the best ways to do this is from a song she wrote and performed with her creative partner Dev Hynes in late 2012 called “Losing You”.
The song itself opens up with a swelling cornucopia of heavy African percussion,conga and bongo drums keeping time in a very polyrhythmic fashion to a very strident 4/4 “on the floor” style post disco beat. Weaving within this is an usual sound,perhaps percussion or a keyboard,that sounds something like a cross between children at play or tweeting birds. It has a very strong Brazilian effect either way. After a couple refrains of this a polyphonic synthesizer comes into the song bringing the melody. It’s soon joined by a thick,phat and popping bass line and another synthesizer part providing an accent that has the sound of a glistening,ringing bell. Over this insistent groove Solange sings in her rich,expressive yet low key voice about breaking up with a lover who seems to be insisting that she is entirely at fault in the situation. By the end,she is still unsure. And the fact that instrumentation stays on the one so insistently illustrates this concept.
Musically speaking,this song is a vital extension on the dance sound Madonna had on her earliest hits-with Mtume’s Reggie Lucas involved. This songs particular variation on the boogie funk sound of the early 80’s does mirror a time when even MTV had to refer to Madonna’s early disco/funk/boogie hits as being “rock” to spike interests. What Solange and Dev add to this mix is heavily layered Afro-Latin percussion and effects-which were a huge part of disco era late 70’s funk as well. By her own admission Solange has devoted herself to carrying on in a slickly produced instrumental variety of funk/soul music from the late 70’s/early 80’s as the basis for her sound. And doing so by her own admittance due to the proliferation of “R&B-gone-electronic dance music tracks” and that it was “remarkable for what it suggests about the direction of pop music right now”.
Shooting the video in the shanty-like township of Lango in Cape Town,South Africa during her photo shoot for Elle magazine added to the strong sense of Afro Futurism that Solange is suggesting in the song. Especially with the extra’s decked out in the manner of Afrocentric fashionista’s and engaging in general friendly farce and horseplay with her. Solange Knowles is an important talent in terms of the live instrumental funk revival. And I fully support her musical and personal position in hypothetical concert with her more commercially popular sister. She represents one head of a two headed family hydra who both bring to mind different sides of the post feminist black female iconoclast. And with Solange zeroing in more on her instrumental musical concept? She surely has a strong future ahead of her.