Outkast’s 2006 album, Idlewild, was very important to me for two reasons. The first reason was that it proved Outkast, Andre 3000 and Big Boi, are no more. I knew it instantly after listening to that album that they no longer saw themselves as a unit. I haven’t been persuaded by the line both members have used over the years - “we are taking a break” “we are still family” – listening to Idlewild will tell you that they are done.
Secondly and more positively, Idlewild was important because it was the first time I heard Janelle Monae. She was the silver lining on that album. We both heard the death of one of black music’s greatest and most innovative bands and the birth of fearless young artist.
Fast forward to 2010 and Janelle Monae showed that I was right to take notice. She released an album which left my jaw on the floor. Although I am 26 years old, I feel like an old bastard and regularly complain about the quality of music today – especially black music. The ArchAndroid was all my complaints answered. It was ambitious, expansive and it took risks jovially – sometimes it missed the mark spectacularly (Make the bus, for example) but most of the time it hit highs that left me in goosebumps (Oh, maker).
The ArchAndroid is a modern day classic. I genuinely thought Monae did a Nas, she made her Illmatic and would be hard pressed to repeat the trick.
With Electric Lady, Janelle has proved how special she is. Monae has grown remarkably as an artist and it shines blindly through on this album. Electric lady doesn’t manically bounce from genre to genre like its predecessor, this is more of a traditional R’n’B album.
When I say R’n’B, I am not talking about her contemporaries such as Beyonce or Rihanna, I am talking the R’n’B of Prince, Stevie, Michael and Aretha and Marvin – that is who you must compare Janelle to after hearing this album. I can give no greater compliment than that.
Suite four is where all the fireworks are stored. It tells you a lot about Janelle’s confidence when she starts the album off with His Royal Purpleness. What makes ‘Give em what they love’ spectacular is not only the appearance of Prince (by the way, this is the Controversy, Dirty Mind, Sexy MF Prince and not the jut found religion Prince), but the fact that Monae isn’t an afterthought once the song has finished. She stands toe to toe with the great Purple one and this prologues the greatness in the album.
In fact, every guest appearance on this album manage to sprinkle a little bit of magic to the proceedings and threaten to overshadow the headliner – but every single time Monae manages to rise above them. When Badu strolls silkily onto the funky-ass Q.U.E.E.N like a panther, Monae has a fierce rhyme reminiscent of Chuck D and KRS-1 to bat her off with. Janelle response to Solange’s irresistible 90’s TLC vide with a grin-inducing serenading rap-verse that makes you ache for Left Eye.
When Primetime, featuring Mugel, rolls around you start to appreciate the change in Janelle Monae’s attitude and you suddenly realise a great flaw in her previous album. This Monae is much more open than the one listeners met on The ArchAndoid. “Tonight, I don’t want to be mysterious with you”, she says on what can only be described as a bedroom jam, a song which would have never appeared on ArchAndoid. She no longer strictly sticks to her alter-ego Cindi when she is performing, in Primetime you feel like you are getting your first glimpse of Janelle.
Although Suite four may have all the headliners, the best of the album is found on Suite five. This is the Suite which propels this from just being a great album to being a jaw dropping one. Suite five shows you that Janelle wanted achieve more on this album other than catch people’s ear and show them how many different genre’s she can pull off.
If you close your eyes, you can see a young Michael Jackson shuffling around and singing It’s Code with his brothers backing him up. Ghetto Woman could happily sit in the middle of Stevie Wonder’s classic Innervisions and not be out of place at all. This isn’t to say that Janelle Monae is trying to imitate these artist, you don’t get that impression at all – you feel like she understands what made the greats great and she taps into that and makes their style her own.
In this regard, Ghetto Woman is an extraordinary extraordinary song. She updates a sound which is timeless and familiar and entirely owned by a legendary artist and claims it as her own (I would kill for Stevie to cover this song). This is a worthy successor to Living in the City and after Kelindo does his usual fantastic guitar solo, Monae’s Andre 3000 like rap lifts this song into a stratosphere that I thought modern day R’n’B would never reach. I would love to know what Wonder thinks of this song.
Victory is my personal favourite. Again, this song shows how much more willing Monae is to open up to her audience. She feels vulnerable on this song, something that I never felt on her previous album. It is a song for when everything in your life has gone wrong and you need to find something, anything, to make you get up off the floor before the count. Again, there are shades of the greats on this song – Aretha and Ms Hill come to mind – but this song is totally Janelle’s own.
By the time the closer comes to your ears with its 80s synth chords, you feel exhausted. It is a different exhaustion to the one you feel at the end of ArchAndoid – here you succinct impression is that Janelle has given you all that she can emotionally as well as talent wise.
Some listeners will be disappointed with this album for not being The ArchAndoid and not being as experimental – I can understand that but I don’t feel that way at all. I have someone I can champion after the untimely death of Amy Winehouse. Janelle could be the woman to take black music out of its oversexaulised, boring and risk adverse state that it has been in for years.
I am not naïve enough to believe that this album will be a commercial success. I do think that people will come to this album and this artist slowly throughout the coming years and will see her for the innovator and trail blazer she is.
Janelle Monae is the real queen of the new school and at 27 I don’t think she will let go of that crown anytime soon.