Review Summary: The visionary pop star follows the trajectory of her genre-hopping previous endeavors with more driving ambition and artistic creativity to boot.
The mainstream obsessed with record sales is growing deficient in real passion these days. Janelle Monáe, who's lately complained about the poor quality of recent r&b records in numerous interviews, certainly knows how to fix that problem. The futuristic Metropolis saga featuring the singer's alter-ego android Cindi Mayweather has been her labor of love from the get-go, dating back to early demo recordings and culminating in critically acclaimed The ArchAndroid
three years ago. No wonder that the concept story, originally planned as a four-installment affair, has expanded to seven segments. The Electric Lady
comprises the fourth and fifth suites, following the trajectory of the genre-hopping previous output with more driving ambition and artistic creativity to boot.
This time around Monáe has found inspiration through painting, which lends her perpetually altering style a cinematic scope. The songs are more expansive, unraveling in a far more detailed manner, which showcases the grandeur of this sci-fi saga even better. Yet, instead of alienating with its complex concept and long running time, the album never ceases to be cohesive and highly accessible whether it's the party-ready cosmic funk of the former suite or the stripped-down introspection that propels the latter. It's an expertly conceived amalgam of pop, soul, r&b and funk that inspires deep reverence for tradition, ranging from horn sections and weeping soul strings to nimble guitar stabs, sleazy slide guitar solos and funky bass lines. The singer and her Wondaland team have an uncanny knack for reshaping these elements into a decidedly modern whole that centers around memorable melodies. Even though the flow of the record sometimes gets disrupted by disposable radio DJ interludes, the songwriting on display is so refined that makes the listener discard any minor flaws.
The Electric Lady
kicks off with a lush spaghetti western intro that gives way to a thrilling duo with Prince, "Givin' Em What They Love." Following on, “Q.U.E.E.N” is where the record's leading theme of empowerment crystalizes with such lines as “you can take my wings, but I'm still goin' fly” and “categorize me, I defy every label” defiantly rapped by Monáe in the track's ravishing climax. The feminist undertones permeate the title track that establishes Electric Lady as an inspirational figure for the whole contemporary r&b movement. Another recurring notion is the struggle for acceptance, bridging a gap between people of different race, religion or sexual orientation. Like in every fine sci-fi concept, Monáe's lyrics are rife with metaphors and parallels to the actual world. In this respect, they additionally reflect the artist's unabashedly optimistic outlook. The hook-laden “Dance Apocalyptic” seethes with positivity despite tragic circumstances, whereas “Victory” hits the mark with the genuinely relatable chorus line “to be victorious you must find glory in the little things.”
Although Suite IV may be more dynamic and immediate, Suite V unfolds its tremendous appeal in time. Heroic females remain in the album's scope of interest, though. “Ghetto Woman” is a heartwarming ode to the singer's mother set against the bouncy funk backdrop. Elsewhere, “Sally Ride” revolves around the US' first female astronaut, making good use of the ominous space-rock arrangement and wondrous transitions that hint at a grandiose finale that never comes. The superb soul ballad “Can't Live Without Your Love” enchants with its tenderness and lack of pretense, while “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” performed with the gifted jazz musician Esperanza Spalding is a lithe bossa nova tune that only enhances the record's boundless eclecticism.
Feeling completely at ease in both robust and subdued repertoire, Monáe strikes as a remarkably versatile singer as well. With such famed collaborators as Prince and Erykah Badu, any artist of less magnitude would play second fiddle, solely relying on other performers' skills. Instead, Monáe remains in the limelight through the entire record. No matter how respected or experienced the guests are, she seems to treat them as her peers. That alone signifies how outstanding a singer she is. But The Electric Lady
is also a dazzling artistic statement, a fiendishly clever endeavor that oozes enough feminine charm, wit and charisma to endow dozens of regular pop starlets with.