Janelle Monáe’s full-length debut arrives with the weight of contemporary Black Artistry on its shoulders. She’s been praised by major artist, she’s on Bad Boy, and has an inclination towards the odd and eccentric, or so we’re made to believe. The ArchAndroid follows last year Metropolis EP, which introduced listeners to Cindi Mayweather, a robot running from a fascist state in the future, and searching for her humanity. From the print other taste-makers have already put to page, The ArchAndroid will be making heavy appearances on best of 2010 lists. Most of the writing has Janelle being the next best thing since the last savior of music; whoever you can recall that being. Yet, what the album delivers is just plain good music.
The ArchAndroid unconsciously forgoes much of the high-minded concept that really just distracted from her talent and music on Metropolis and gets shit crackin’. After the mostly “rapped” electro-tribal “Dance or Die”, featuring Saul Williams doing his typical life, light, and art shtick, the album transitions wonderfully into “Faster”. A soaring composition so full of confidence and contemporary funk, one must truly have a dead soul to not want to shake their ass to such a danceable groove and Janelle’s lush vocal cadences. The momentum is effortlessly moved into “Locked Inside”, a song that mightily channels the King of Pop’s Off The Wall spirit and will bewilder me if it’s not released as a single and booms out of speakers in all places American. This funktafied-disco spirit is also found in the first single “Tightrope”, which is the epitome of an honest modern swagger and cool.
Yet, The ArchAndroid flourishes most brightly when things are slowed down and the experimental impulses are restrained and used effectively. “Oh, Maker” elucidates such an exotic and unique musical language it traps listeners within its “newness.” Vacillating between a psychedelic British folk and the best of Neo-Soul, the ballad dumps buckets of thick emotional paint into ones ears. This shimmering sonic eros continues with “Neon Valley Street”, a voluptuous horn-laden voyage that Monáe half sings-half raps into unforgettable territory. This exceptional sound is also found on “Say You’ll Go”, “Sir Greendown”, and the epic “BoBopByeYa”.
Ultimately my biggest gripe with The ArchAndroid is that someone just threw too much shit into this gumbo. Parts R&B, parts funk and disco, parts glam rock, parts electro-pop, parts punk-pop, and parts rap, this long player just comes off like Monae trying too many hats at once. “Make The Bus” featuring Indy faves Of Montreal is a bad attempt to grab that audience; “Cold War” comes off like a Gnarls Barkley rip-off; and “Mushrooms and Roses” takes pysch rock down an over-filtered, boringly sparse escapade into nothingness. The ArchAndroid shows where Janelle sounds best and most comfortable right now in her career. There was no need to run through all of her influences on one record. Some quality control really would have made this what some are calling “a game changer”. In the end, the young woman blessed with a voice as soothing and strong as coastal winds is all that is needed with as funky backing beat. She doesn’t need to “change the game” or “save music” from shit. All she needs to do is to continue to grow and make music that is true to her. The magic and audience will follow.