Review Summary: Everything her fans had been hoping for, and then some.
It's hard to believe that it's been three years since the first part of Janelle Monae's Metropolis
suite heralded the arrival of a major new talent - expectations and anticipation for this album could barely have been any higher in 2008 than they are in 2010. Luckily, all The Archandroid
does is confirm what The Chase
us suspect - Monae is a kaleidoscopic prodigy whose raw talent is only matched by her near-psychotic ambition. As it stands, this is the pop album of the year, and it's tough to see how anything is going to beat it.
The temptation is to label Monae as 'the new Lauryn Hill' or 'the new Erykah Badu', or even 'the new Grace Jones', but the truth is that she doesn't really sound like anybody. She shares Hill's soulful populism, Badu's appreciation of hip-hop, and Jones' ear-catching knack for plucking sounds and influences completely out of the blue, but there's no neat musical reference point for her. Michael Jackson's Off the Wall
is an obvious reference point for the most immediate moments of this album ("Locked Inside" especially), but then, so are both Stankonia
and The Love Below
; and that's just the singles. There's also an overture that lifts from the Tchaikovsky worshipping end of Hollywood film scores, a smattering of Alicia Keys balladry on the second half of the album, generous lashings of vocal jazz, funk, and swing on the first half, Gloria Estefan-isms on "Dance or Die", guitar solos ripped right out of Daft Punk tracks, and a sample of Claude Debussy's "Claire de lune" on "Say You'll Go". In a way, she almost does with music what Heston Blumenthal does with food, taking familiar ingredients and treating and blending them in such a demented way that it almost becomes a parody, yet you can't help but stand back and admire the craft and artistry at work.
Behind all that genre hopping is the album's concept, which continues the story told by The Chase
. This time around, the story's protagonist (one Cindi Mayweather) discovers that she is a Messiah-type figure - the titular Archandroid - destined to lead an oppressed people to freedom away from the oppressive forces of Metropolis. Swap out 'Cindi Mayweather' for 'Neo', 'Archandroid' for 'The One', and 'Metropolis' for 'The Matrix' and you're there; luckily this doesn't descend into psuedo-Biblical psychobabble as soon as its second instalment kicks in, and Monae is smart enough to frame the story against a backdrop of racism in America, digging plenty of sociopolitical hooks into the real world along the way. It's a lofty concept all the same, though, and one that the vast majority of experienced musicians wouldn't attempt, let alone somebody approaching their first full-length.
Sound like a mess? It should be. Barely a song goes by on this album without Monae attempting something that simply should not work, only for her to pull it off; if you spend your first listen to this shaking your head in amazement, you're not alone. You just don't think the outstanding "Cold War" will get away with jacking a drum track from "Bombs Over Baghdad", but it does; and it gets away with having Big Boi's voice appear literally seconds after it finishes, too. "Neon Gumbo"'s back-masked vocals and guitars signal a slide into pretence that never arrives, the polite faux-1950s pop of "Oh, Maker" is a sweet album highlight rather than the cheesy novelty it would be in lesser hands, ditto the stray cat strut of "Come Alive (The War of the Roses)". By the time "57821" rolls around with its medieval folk melody, you can't help but wonder whether she's just gloating about all the genres she can excel in. There is one exception - Of Montreal have absolutely no business being near this album, and "Make the Bus" is a failure largely because they sound so utterly out of their depth.
Yet that's just one failure amidst 18 other successes; 18 wild long shots that become home runs almost in spite of themselves. To put it bluntly, The Archandroid
is everything her fans had been hoping for and then some; Monae has earned her place at the forefront of black music in 2010. This ballsy, funky, and furiously intelligent album is pop as everybody wishes it would be.