If you’ve been following the sci-fi operatic story of Cindi Mayweather, you are well aware that she’s been captured for falling in love with a human and must accept her fate. And Cindi’s creator, Janelle Monae, has released the next installment, The Electric Lady, chronicling Cindi’s future in this ongoing saga of droid love, self-realization and acceptance. Maintaining the continuity of the Metropolis series, Janelle brings forth an audacious, cinematic album that is a true testament to her sprawling artistry.
The opening track “Suite IV Electric Overture” kicks off with a spaghetti western theme of grandiose measures and theatrical flair as Cindi meets her destiny with 14 soldiers surrounding her as she screams, “I don’t want to be a slave again!” As the electric girl cries out for emancipation, her final words, “And I only want to bring you light…” serve as the perfect introduction to Suite IV. A majority of the album’s notably slim features (Prince, Solange, Miguel, Esperanza Spalding and Badoula Oblongata aka Erykah Badu) can be found in Suite IV, which has pop punk, psychedelic soul, and dramatic rock sounds alongside Janelle’s wide vocal range.
“Give ‘Em What They Love”, featuring Prince, is a forceful glam rock-esque track with an insatiable guitar riff while Monae annihilates the chords with her unruly voice. But unfortunately, the excitement of having Prince on the track never comes to fruition due to his inability to provide anything “Prince like.” Just having his presence there isn’t enough to make it as effervescent as it could’ve been though the hidden tribute to him is worth digging up. We also see the same thing with Badu on the electro funk “Q.U.E.E.N.”. It’s another thunderous track that focuses on maintaining your individuality that didn’t’reach its fullest potential. Badu sounds stale and predictable while Janelle stays lively enough to carry the song specifically due to the hot 16 she spit at the end. She could’ve easily handled both songs on her own and they would’ve sounded just as good if not better.
It’s important to note that Monae also stood tall alongside Prince and Badu showing no signs of being overshadowed, which shows how talented she is. The Miguel-featured “Primetime” would fit better on Suite V but is an ode to the classic R&B duets of yesteryear. No overly sexualized rhetoric; just a tasteful display of dreamy innuendos that subtly make it more erotic. Miguel and Janelle’s chemistry is as illustrious as the guitar solo that might remind you of The Purple One. “Dance Apocalyptic” is a light-hearted pop-punk track with a heavy combustible message that may throw some veteran droids off. “Electric Lady” featuring Solange and “We Were Rock n’ Roll” keep in line with the energy but don’t offer enough distinction while the lush “Look Into My Eyes” closes out this suite elegantly.
Suite V doesn’t open as extravagantly as Suite IV but still does an effective job of preparing you for what’s next. There is only one guest feature and it has softer compositions with more emotive songs that step away from Cindi’s narrative and give us a tiny piece of Janelle’s. “Ghetto Woman”, reminiscent of Stevie Wonder (Songs In The Key Of Life era) has Ms. Monae paying homage to her mother. It’s a “fist in the air”-style record that celebrates strong women who struggle and try to defy the odds. Janelle truly thrives when she can let down her tuxedo styled guard and give us glimpses from within. The mellowed-out “Can’t Live Without Your Love” and jazzed-up “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”, the latter featuring Spalding, are absolutely exquisite with pristine musicianship. Housing elements of Michael Jackson circa 1979 with the latter infusing some Donny Hathaway (“Love, Love, Love”), they tug on the emotional piece of your ear but still offer an unyielding groove to vibe to. “Sally Ride”, has celebratory elements with bits of the real Sally Ride’s story intertwined. The melody and syncopation of the instrumentation is nothing less than stellar. “It’s Code,” has a dusty ’70s sound and deals with heartbreak while “Victory” and “What An Experience” round out this suite with more thoughts on love, loss and revelation.
It’s clear that Janelle pulled from a plethora of different artists, writers, and composers to create the blueprint for The Electric Lady. There is a popcorn trail that leads listeners to David Bowie, Bernard Herrmann, Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone Sun Ra, Phillip K. Dick and countless others that producers Roman GianArthur and Deep Cotton used as starting points. But don’t confuse her or her production team channeling these artistic geniuses with Thicke-gate; her presence is clearly felt on each track and still unique to her utopian world. And instead of dwelling in that psychedelic funk and soul stew she’s marinated in, she expanded her sound and added jazz, pop, punk, classic R&B and spaghetti western sounds creating a genre-bending album that is theatrically intriguing and broad. She stuck with themes of prejudice, injustice, love and tolerance to ensure her message remained clear. Also, she is on her fourth and fifth suites yet still sounds fresh like she’s actually having fun making the music, which is rare.
The Electric Lady has a more conventional sound but isn’t overtly pop that it’s offensive to her core audience yet welcoming enough for the mainstream to understand it. The downside is that some guest appearances seem manufactured and a means to gain more traction (Prince) while certain tracks sound trite and unnecessary (“We Were Rock n’ Roll”). The skits, though effective, can get tiresome fast. It would also be refreshing for Janelle to loosen her tuxedo coat and show us who she is giving the listener an opportunity to truly connect with her and not a character birthed from her imagination.
But in the end, what humans and non-droids have to say doesn’t matter because the booty don’t lie.
4 out of 5
You can buy The Electric Lady on Amazon.