Above all, Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid
is the ideal crossover pop album. On one hand, it has the kind of classic songwriting that anyone can enjoy--accessibility through sheer excellence. Songs like lead single “Tightrope” are ones that can be thrown on without any worry as to whether or not your more mainstream-leaning friends will enjoy it: the song’s uncountable hooks and driving rhythms are staples of radio-friendly pop, without the sense of banality that so frequently burdens that genre. On the other hand, The ArchAndroid
contains some of the more experimental ethos that the people who are reading this review likely are inclined towards (if you must have a label: indie kids). Specifically, the concept behind the album is unflinchingly ambitious, what with androids and mushrooms and roses, all thrown in a stew of a plotline so confusing that the whole project could be scrapped away as “pretentious”. That is, until you realize that all this conceptual and visionary (Metropolis
homage on the cover!) bombast is in service of some really ***ing good
music--ignore the narrative if you like, but this is pop music that refuses to be labelled as anything besides some of the best produced this decade thus far.
The music on display here is so pleasing in part because it’s never remotely the same; so diverse is the album, in fact, that most of us analyzing it are forced to refer to apparent “influences” for individual tracks to give potential listeners an idea of what the album sounds like. This isn’t to say these reference points are illegitimate--the angular chord changes of “Locked Inside” are pure Innervisions
-era Stevie Wonder and the gorgeous “57821” is reminiscent of the Medieval-esque folk of Fleet Foxes--but to injuriously compare Janelle Monae’s music to artists of the past would be to do a wonderfully unique artist injustice. Each song has a distinct mood, but labeling one as “the Stevie Wonder song” and another as “the folk song” would be discrediting the proficiency with which Monae hybridizes and integrates genres and influences, ultimately making them her own, instead of some sort of musical landscape of name-checking.
As an “album experience”, The ArchAndroid
is fittingly cinematic (it has suites
, man!), especially when Monae manages to fit in the string-and-horn flourishes that so often soundtrack film epics (both of the “Overtures”, “BaBopByeYa”)--to great effect, as well: listening to these tracks, the lucky listener feels as if they are travelling through the fantasy world Janelle Monae has set up specifically for this work. Whether or not the plot is fully understandable is ultimately inconsequential; the mobile rhythms of songs like epic closer “BaBopByeYa” allow anyone to instantly be transported to somewhere magical, even if we don't completely buy into this whole android business.
And then, oh man, there are these songs
. Eighteen tracks make up the entirety of The ArchAndroid
, and nearly every one of them is, in one way or another, at the top of my “favorite songs of the year” list. The beginning stretch of the album (approximately from “Dance or Die” to “Tightrope”) is unrelentingly catchy, whether it be the quick funk rhythms of “Faster” or the “B.O.B.”-esque drama of “Cold War”. From around “Come Alive”, though, Janelle Monae delightfully goes off the deep end, ambitiously expanding her palette while still retaining her sense of a great song. It’s this contained weirdness that allows her robotic delivery on centerpiece “Mushrooms & Roses” to be strangely touching (“We’re all virgins to the joys of loving without fear”), or for the out-of-left-field folk of “57821” to fit next to the neo-funk of “Wondaland”, or for the unrelentingly complex “BaBopByeYa” to feel like the perfect closer to an album so multi-faceted that it might be interpreted as petty showboating in the hands of a lesser artist.
Ultimately, The ArchAndroid
is like a utopian vision of pop music’s future, catchy and ambitious in equal measure. The album’s concept isn’t so intrusive that the album requires some sort of plotline decoder ring; it simply serves as another level of depth for the listener to enjoy. This is an album that, in its ambition, feels completely new--something never done before. Which is true: Janelle Monae manages to stuff so much variety (and excellence) into this album that nothing feels like a retread. However, it’s also somewhat traditional: another entry into a growing list of albums perfecting the balance between vision and accessibility. Brava!