Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: Janelle Monae *The ArchAndroid*

I was seventeen when I first heard Radiohead’s OK Computer. It was on display at the local Borders, a few days after its release. Having seen (and liked) the video for “Paranoid Android” earlier that day, I was intrigued enough to purchase the album, not knowing what I was getting myself into. When I got home I listened to the CD via headphones on my Sony Discman, my preferred method for listening to new music. The experience was jarring. As each song played, I realized I was hearing something new and great, but I didn’t know what to make of it. By the time “The Tourist” concluded the album, I was as perplexed and I was thrilled. I had never heard anything like it. So I did what came naturally: I hit play, and listened to it again, and again, and again. Within hours, it became my obsession, a new favorite.

I haven’t felt the same way about an album until three days ago, when I first listened to Janelle Monaé’s The ArchAndroid.

Landmark debuts are not uncommon in music, but Janelle Monaé does one better: she has released a debut record that sounds like a monumental release by seasoned artist, a magnificent third album. What to praise first about The ArchAndroid? Monaé’s incredible vocal instrument, which is as protean and virtuosic as her songs? The embarrassment of Monaé’s ambition, cinematic in its sprawl, which spans 70 minutes and covers genres never before heard, as well as the more familiar like English Folk, Disco, Top 40, R&B, Prog Rock, Soul, Psychedelia, Big Band, and even Easy Listening? The album's unabashed ebullience that hearkens back to Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, early Prince, and the Innervisions of Stevie Wonder? The handful of songs that instantly feel classic (“Tightrope”, “Cold War”, “Wondaland”, “57821”), or the majority of others that are merely incredible (take your pick)? How to choose one criterion, when The ArchAndroid is equally defined by all?

Officially, The ArchAndroid is a concept album, parts two and three of a four-suite piece titled Metropolis, an homage to Fritz Lang’s classic film. (The first suite, which was released as an EP in 2007, is very good, but not in the same league as the full-length album.) Monaé has gone to great lengths to flesh out the concept of the work, which stars her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android created to emancipate the androids of the 28th century from…blah, blah, blah. As outré as this all sounds, the great warmth and energy Monaé brings to the material allows the high concept of her vision to (happily) recede into the background. It’s there to parse if you want. The rest of us can simply enjoy the brilliance of the music.

It’s fitting that Janelle Monaé fancies herself an android; mere mortals couldn't pull off what she and her co-producers have achieved. In my review of LCD Soundsystem’s album This Is Happening, a couple of weeks ago, I said “though this year is already brimming with incredible releases, I doubt we'll hear anything better than [it].” I was laughably off the mark, as This Is Happening and The ArchAndroid were both released on the same day (last Tuesday). This Is Happening is fantastic, classic even. But The ArchAndroid is a masterpiece, a work of art – and the first of the new decade, direct from the 28th century.