The Electric Lady
The Electric Lady is Janelle Monae’s second official album release – and her third release given her debut was a seven-track EP/mini-album, it’s also known as the fourth and fifth suites of her seven-part future-symphony that will link the four releases (when the closing chapters are released on album number three). Hey, I admire the pluck, the concept – even just having something conceptual as a hinge.
But Monae is trying to be an album artist in the era of singles. It’s remarkable that she can do both – Q.U.E.E.N had everyone sold on this before the album was released; before there was anything much to go on but that song. And fair enough too – it’s a great wee song. And it’s got Erykah Badu.
The success of these – and maybe one or two others – will keep people buying the album as totem, or at least keep people downloading the singles to such a degree that the album will suggest a strong showing regardless.
But the second half of The Electric Lady is really slow and soppy and often kinda shitty. Monae has sass and class and she’s one-part Prince, one-part Beyonce, one-part almost George Clinton. So all of those things appeal – to disparate fan bases, or to the same fan base. She’s smart, she’s good – there’s a lot of reasons to like her. But the songwriting falls away all too easily and when Monae goes syrupy-ballad-y her Jackson 5-era MJ voice starts to grate. You keep hearing “I want you back” as imaginary vocal refrain.
But Janelle, the two of us need look no more, most of your fans found what they were looking for when Q.U.E.E.N stomped out of the blocks, the perfect follow-up, single-wise to the slow-burn that was your career up until that Letterman performance of Tightrope.
The Electric Lady still has some nice tricks. The guest-list is close to perfect: Prince, Erykah, Solange, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding (and the almost-jazzy near-samba Dorothy Dandridge Eyes that Spalding guests on is a late-in-the-piece highlight; it almost pulls the second half of the overly long record out of the soggy, dank hole. Almost).
With her James Brown moves (that Tightrope clip) and her Stevie Wonder influences (Ghetto Woman) Monae is already a subversive force given she has teams of people wanting to make her Beyonce or Madonna or Britney or Whitney and all she wants to do is build a bassline, have a great backline, get the groove going and party. But in and around the party the segues that now seem a little daft – mostly for the sake of keeping up the appearances of the silly future-spiel (ugh!) concept – start to slow the momentum.
She might like to think it’s about peaks and valleys, detours and stop-offs; but these are near derailments.
The frustrating part of The Electric Lady – as was the case, ultimately with The ArchAndroid – is for every moment you think she might almost have made a Sign O’ The Times or, heck, a version of The Love Below in fact – it all starts to feel a bit too much like The Velvet Rope too. And not the good parts of that album by the way. I mean the shit parts…
But hell, given she’s living firmly, fairly, squarely in a singles world she’s still given lazy pop music buyers/listeners plenty (probably too much) to think about. And those that have followed the suites so far can hang on – and hope (as I’ll be doing) – that the conclusion of this probably-no-longer-thrilling sci-fi farce could at least sound good and might even be good.
I like enough of what I hear here but I’m dreading the Gaga-styled stage show elements taking over, attempting to do the job some of this music has not.