Today I finally begin a new feature on this blog I’ve been planning for a long time called Music Discoveries. The idea is to find musical artists and bands I’m familiar with and do a deep listen of their full catalog of recordings. I was inspired by a fellow blogger on Desert Island Mix Tape when he listened to the entire back catalog of the Bee Gees and then wrote it up. I’ve procrastinated a long time and hesitated posting at all because I’m not particularly skilled as a music critic. But then again I’m not a book or beer critic and that hasn’t stopped me, and I can only get better with practice. So please be patient with me as you read this and offer constructive criticism in the comments.
Let us begin with Janelle Monáe, a musician I first learned of a few years back from my wife (who is often more up to date on contemporary music). The 30-year-old artist from Kansas City, KS is a singer, song writer, producer, collaborator, and all around performer. Her musical style is eclectic bringing together soul, art music, R&B, hip-hop, funk, and even opera and cinematic scores. In many ways she is a musical heir to the recently deceased David Bowie and Prince, a comparison heightened by her androgynous public image and signature tuxedo. Other clear influences on her work and style include Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, and the Afrofuturism of George Clinton and PFunk.
One thing for sure about Monáe is that she is committed to a high concept. Her recordings are a series of suites called Metropolis inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name. The suites center on Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android from the year 2719, who breaks the law by falling in love with a human and while a fugitive becomes a messianic figure to other androids. While there’s a lot to be gained from listening to the suites in order, the songs have universal themes that allow them to succeed out of context. They work as a science fiction story but also as love songs as well as commentaries on social issues such as inequality, social stratification, racism, and discrimination against LGBT communities.
Monáe’s first recording is an extremely limited 2003 album called The Audition, which I wasn’t able to find so I’m going to skip ahead to her 2007 EP where the suites begin
Album: Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)
Release Date: August 24, 2007
Favorite Tracks: “Sincerely, Jane” and “Mr. President”
Thoughts: This EP introduces the first of the Metropolis suites and introduces Cindi Mayweather and the science fiction plot line. Pop and funk are mixed with opera and old standards (the special edition includes a rendition of the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile”). The album is short but epic and cinematic. A good start
Album: The ArchAndroid
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Favorite Tracks: “Locked Inside” “Cold War”
Thoughts: Suite’s II and III of Metropolis make up Monáe’s first full-length major release. The music here is upbeat belying the seriousness of the lyrics. Musically the album jumps among genres from song to song and even within songs. Funk, soul, new wave, afrobeat, psychedelia, and even punk rock (“Come Alive” is reminiscent of the B52s). The music gets a little slow and less interesting in Suite III, but this is definitely a masterpiece.
Album: The Electric Lady
Release Date: September 6, 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Givin’ Em What They Love” “Dance Apocalyptic” “Can’t Live Without Your Love”
Thoughts: Monáe’s second full album and the fourth and fifth suites of the Metropolis opus is full of notable guest artists inluding Miguel, Erykah Badu, Solange, Prince and Esperanza Spalding. Musically this is smoother than The ArchAndroid with some slow jams, and jazz, hip-hop, and gospel influences. I could live without the radio breaks with the android DJ because the verisimilitude to a radio jock patter with callers is all to close. Still this is a worth follow-up to The ArchAndroid and shows Monáe’s s growth and range.
Album: iTunes Festival: London 2013
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Favorite Tracks: “Dance Apocalyptic,” “Tightrope”
Thoughts: This live recording mixes together 5 previously released tracks, showing how well they work independent of the suites and more importantly the incredible energy Monáe brings to performance. The horn section playing behind her is particularly fantastic. Definitely need to take the opportunity to see Monáe in concert.
Album: Wondaland Presents: The Eephus
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Favorite Tracks: “Yoga”
Thoughts: Technically this is not a Monáe album but a compilation of songs by her collective at Wondaland Records (Jidenna, St. Beauty, Roman GianArthur and Deep Cotton). There’s only once song by Monae, featuring Jidenna, called “Yoga” (which is, er, not really about yoga). Monáe’s fingerprints are all over the recording though showing her capabilities as a collaborator and a producer.
Speaking of collaboration, Janelle Monae appears as a guest on many other artists’ recordings. Probably the most famous is “We Are Young” by fun. Monae’s part on the bridge makes a great song – and music video – all the more epic.
Janelle Monae also brought together the Wondaland Records lineup last year on the powerful protest song “Hell You Talmbout” where they chant the names of African-Americans murdered by the police.
I will definitely continue to listen to Janelle Monáe’s music as her career continues. I expect she will continue to grow as an artist and create some of the more innovative music of our time. I’m sad to say that I somehow missed Janelle Monáe Day in my hometown of Boston a few years back, but I hope to see her in concert one day when she returns.
Stay tuned next week as I will tell you what I heard listening to every album by Kate Bush.