Combining the fearlessly experimental, quirky soul disposition of Erykah Badu, the Afro-futurist bent of Parliament/Funkadelic and OutKast, along with a complete mastery of an indefinable, genre-jumping form of pop music (ala Prince, Michael Jackson), Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid will at the very least impress the hell out of you.
Clocking it at about 70 minutes, and pulling from practically every and any genre you can imagine, what is initially stunning about Monae is how capably she bends and contorts her voice and persona into such varied musical settings, and yet crafts an album that is cohesive and meticulously organized. The ArchAndroid is a sprawling, jaw-droppingly fresh and relevant debut album from a young artist possessed with an intense reverence for her pop and soul forbearers, as well as the kind of raw talent, charisma and ambition that may see her reach those same heights one day.
It’s hard to call something an instant classic when it’s only been out for a week. But fuck it, I’m calling it now: Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is an instant classic, and I am almost sure that it will be massively influential on the future of popular music.
Once you get past the downright epic vision and scope of The ArchAndroid, the next thing you’ll probably notice is how easily you’re falling in love with Monae herself. She’s a vocal shape shifter, fully capable of busting a rhyme (“Dance or Die,” featuring Saul Williams), howling away with punk rock abandon like a soulful Patti Smith (“Come Alive (The War of the Roses)”), stopping you in your tracks with evocative spoken word breaks, or bringing the house down with steeple-shaking, gospel vocal runs. There are plenty of artists that seek to stake claim to these capabilities, but Janelle Monae is different. And I won’t even make the obligatory Lauryn Hill comparisons, except to say that in the same way that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was hugely influential in delineating the next ten or so years of pop music in the wake of its 1998 release, Monae’s The ArchAndroid has all the depth, imagination and sheer matchlessness in the current landscape of popular music to do the same for the coming decade. It’s that good.
The album is a sonic thrill ride, filled to the brim with bizarre, unexpected twists and turns stylistically; and they all work perfectly. Monae channels a lot of Prince on The ArchAndroid, particularly his Around the World in a Day and Parade era, with tracks like “Mushrooms and Roses” possessing psychedelic, almost lazily funky grooves and atmospheric production. Then there’s the all-out, booty shaking funk jams, like first single, the Big Boi-assisted “Tightrope” and the energetic and super-infectious “Faster.” Some tracks are ridiculously and deliciously weird, like the dreamlike Of Montreal collaboration “Make The Bus,” and the defiantly-eccentric, Badu-inspired “Wondaland.” We float along with Monae on the trippy “Neon Valley Street,” she takes us on a spaced-out, folk trip with the haunting “57821,” and then we reach the end of our journey with the sweeping drama and noir-like mystery of arguably the album’s most stunningly “out there” track, the almost 9 minute “BeBopByeYa.”
Janelle Monae typifies a shift in current soul and hip hop towards an adventurous, conceptually-complex, indie-influenced aesthetic. Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, as well as recent work from Drake and Kid Cudi, certainly speak to this, but The ArchAndroid is probably the most accomplished artistic statement to arise from this phenomenon.
It may be too complex to top the charts; too challenging to find a mass audience.
But if you’re a fan of adventurous, forward-thinking pop music, The ArchAndroid is essential, and my current prediction for the best album of 2010.