*** (out of four)
Know this about Janelle Monae: She is unlike any other female artist operating today. She refuses to discuss her sexuality, instead saying that she dates “androids.” She only wears black and white but doesn’t do it in a gimmicky way like certain Gagas who shall remain nameless. It’s Janelle's way of turning her outer self into a steady, adaptable canvas from which to project her inner art. That’s where she wants your focus to be.
That’s also what had me worried going into “The Electric Lady,” comprising the fourth and fifth parts of her seven-part concept series. Since she released 2010’s strange, awesome “The ArchAndroid,” Janelle landed a deal with Cover Girl, killed it on Fun's 2012 summer smash “We Are Young” and assembled an insane roster of guests from Prince to Miguel to Erykah Badu. Would this newfound mainstream-ishness lead her to tone down the weird?
The answer: Sort of. Janelle does more of what I’d call typical “singing” on “The Electric Lady,” and overall the tracks have a more traditional, radio-friendly vibe. It’s hard to tell if that’s a product of label influence or just the theme she chose for this suite. Because the theme for most of “The Electric Lady” is FUNK. Not funk. FUNK. We’re talking James Brown, Chaka Khan—and yes, The Purple One himself.
The front half of the album, from the Ennio Morricone-inspired overture (think Quentin Tarantino movies) to “Givin' Em What They Love” with Prince to the shoulder-shaking “We Were Rock & Roll,” is fluffy, danceable fun with a little bite. Call it a nibble. Her android muse/alternate persona Cindi Mayweather is back too. This time, DJ Crash Crash announces the musical event of the moment, an end-of-the-world cyber freak festival complete with atomic kissing contest and Mayweather appearance--no bounty hunters allowed.
Hey, I told you this was a concept album.
Here’s the problem with Janelle Monae flipping over a bunch of potential radio hits like so many uniform pancakes—none of them have those wiggly edges or crunchy bits that make breakfast special. I found myself longing for the horns, weird robot noises and crazy song structures of “ArchAndroid,” but they’ve all been smoothed away. The second suite is sleepy and, dare I say, a little lazy. It's certainly not the energetic romp we’ve anticipated for three years.
I love you, Janelle, but next time don’t be afraid to let your freak flag really fly.
In concert: Oct. 21 at the Vic Theatre
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