The last time we saw our heroine, Cindi Mayweather had been sent back in time to be the savior of humanity. Meanwhile, the last time we saw our troubadour, Janelle Monae had been sent to the top of the pop charts via a guest vocal on Fun.'s unavoidable ode to being sort of a shitty boyfriend “We Are Young.” Both characters are on the verge of ascendancy. The question now is, can Cindi/Janelle save the future/music without sacrificing that spark that makes them unique and incandescent?
Review by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor
The Electric Lady follows the same basic format as Janelle Monae's masterful first full length The ArchAndroid. The album is divided into two suites. Each one starts with a largely orchestral overture setting the musical themes for the following chapter of Cindi Mayweather's glorious Afrofuturist epic. The first two proper tracks kick off the album with a one-two punch of dopeness. A collaboration with Prince “Give Em What They Love” and one with Erykah Badu “Q.U.E.E.N.” Both set the tone for the rest of the record. Prince's iconic synth squiggles populate the record. Gender and sexual identity issues are more explicit than they were on The ArchAndroid. “Is it weird to like the way she wears her tights?” she muses on “Q.U.E.E.N.”
The Cindi Mayweather story has always had overtones of Queer identity, being the story of an android falling in love with a human man (a forbidden love on Metropolis). But they were coached in metaphor and implied by Janelle Monae's androgynous look. On first listen I actually literally applauded (it was 1 in the morning; my roommates were not nearly as delighted with my physical display of joy as they should have been if they really loved me...) when the 90's throwback interludes reached their payoff with a caller to DJ Crash Crash's radio show declaring “Robot love is queer!” with Crash Crash responding “What I want to know is, how would you know it's queer if you haven't tried it?”
Racial issues, which had previously been mostly implied by the “otherness” of being an android, are pushed more to the forefront with Janelle Monae's ode to her working mother “Ghetto Woman.” It's a surprisingly personal moment from an artist who routinely sings from behind a mask. “Her eyes too heavy from working nights as a janitor / She'd keep it to herself and nobody could understand her / Even when she thought she couldn't she carried on / She couldn't imagine both of her daughters here all alone.” It should be no surprise then that such a nakedly personal song (not to mention the most straight up funk track on the record) would be one of the album's biggest highlights.
The only real problem with The Electric Lady is that sometimes it can't decide if it wants to be the bizarre and uncompromising sci-fi future-funk we all fell in love with, or if it wants to reach for the pop charts. And that's not a judgment on either side. Even Bowie's oft-maligned 80's pop era produced some genuine gems (“Let's Dance” as an album still holds up as one of the 80s best pop records). But where The ArchAndroid was overstuffed with songs and arrangements too smart for the pop scene, The Electric Lady has a few numbers that compromise on the compositional depth and sincere weirdness without delivering the pure mindless injection of fun (or Fun. as the case may be) that people seem to look for in their pop music in 2013.
Ultimately The Electric Lady is a worthy successor to The ArchAndroid, though it may not be the album that breaks Janelle Monae through to the mainstream just yet. It's a safer album. But other than maybe Weezer's Pinkerton, when has a sophomore album not been? With The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae captured the imagination of my fellow freaks and weirdos everywhere. With The Electric Lady she seems determined to satisfy both her loyal army of fans and a mainstream audience. Can she pull it off? Who knows. But with songs as undeniable and undeniably fresh as “Dance Apocalyptic” anything's possible.