Artist Spotlight: Janelle Monáe

Singer, songwriter, music producer, model, actress. Janelle Monáe wears a lot of hats. And a few suits. She is quirky without being annoying, creative while still being accessible, and eclectic while still having her own identity. She is beloved by many, but deserves to be loved by a whole lot more.

Janelle Monáe Robinson was born in December, 1985, in Kansas City, Kansas. So, if you ever felt a Wizard of Oz vibe from any of her work, then that is probably the reason. She lived there for a while before moving to New York City. In 2001, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia and met Big Boi from Outkast, along with a bunch of other aspiring artists. They founded the Wondaland Arts Society.

In 2003, Monáe released her first album, The Audition. Well, sort of. It was self-released off of her Wondalands Arts Society Label, self-financed, and sold out of the boarding house where she was living at the time. As a result, there are supposedly fewer than 500 physical copies in existence. That is some commendable Do-It-Yourself initiative, but it did not quite match the (somewhat ambivalent) ambition of stardom shown in a few of the songs. Already, much of Monáe’s sound was already established. The R&B, the funk, the neo-soul, all wrapped up in easily accessible pop and her voice. Her lyrics are mostly about love, being young, uncertainty of the future, living in the moment, and dreams of making it big. There is, however, a few hints of her dabbling in sci-fi imagery in a couple of songs…well, not so much hints; it is pretty blatant, but anyways…

Lettin’ Go is the first proper song off of the album and it is just full of sound and life. This is no small song. Strings, bass, guitar percussion, backup singers (it may all be her, but it still counts), the works. It has the production and confidence of someone destined for something big…eventually…maybe.

Lettin’ Go – 4:30

The companion, I suppose, to the song above is I Won’t Let Go. This one sneaks up on the listener with a string section and a bass guitar, before giving way to a piano. Beautiful, slow, and relaxed. It is like it is from a movie soundtrack. The version on the album is instrumental, which I find quite impressive. Like, Monáe has a wonderful voice, but decided to devote nearly five minutes to not singing at all. Now, there is a version with lyrics and singing and it is good. I am not sure what the context is for why there are two versions; maybe the instrumental version was a mistake that they could not fix in time. Regardless, I think that it being an instrumental track helps it stand out more. And given that it is the twelfth track out of fourteen, she can afford to rest her voice for a little.

I Won’t Let Go – 4:41

The last song on the album is You Are My Everything. While the previous two tracks are examples of the album’s full sound, this is one of a few tracks that are just Monáe singing (with some multi-track backing) over an acoustic guitar. And, the lyrics are…well…this is the last song on the album.

You Are My Everything – 4:42

Whether by design or not, The Audition did not make much of a dent. Monáe spent the next few years contributing to other people’s projects such as In “House” Session by Jaspects and the Idlewild soundtrack by Outkast. Eventually, though, she returned to her own work. In 2007, Monáe released an EP called Metroplis: Suite I (The Chase), this time on Bad Boy Records. Though it only reached the 115th spot on Billboard, it sold 5,200 copies in its first week, which is significantly more than the under 500 physical copies of her first album. And while her first album had hints of the lyrical and musical themes that she would explore on later works, this EP marks the first part in what is meant to be a cohesive-seven part opus. Inspired sort of by the movie of the same name Metropolis about an android named Cindi Mayweather who chafes against discrimination and her place in society. Overall, the EP has a vibe of the 60s and 70s, mixing pop and rock n roll with a bit of operatic pomp.

One of the songs on the EP is Many Moons, a 70s-ish track filtered through Outkast. You can sort of hear hints of “Hey Ya” and “B.O.B” along with the Counting to 12 song from Sesame Street in this fast-paced and frantic track.

Many Moons – 5:23

In 2010, Monáe released the second and third suites in her Metropolis opus under the album title The ArchAndroid. The album continues Monáe’s mix of various genres from the different decades. The lyrics, continuing the story of Cindi Mayweather, sometimes is explicit about its futuristic setting and semi-apocalyptic imagery, but is often more overt about its commentary on contemporary discrimination. One thing of note is the guest vocalists. Yeah, sure. There is Big Boi on one track. But, as The Audition, featured an instrumental, this one has a full song where Monáe pretty much brings in the band Of Montreal to both write and perform a song.

Oh, Maker is one of the more 60’s-ish sounding tracks, at least in terms of the folksy guitar parts and the background singers…not so much the hard-hitting percussion. Some youtube videos stop after the fadeout around three minutes, but that misses the retro-spacey keyboard instrumental bit.

Oh, Maker – 3:47

Mushrooms & Roses is sort of late 60s-70s sounding track, more like psychedelic rock on top of a string section with Monáe sings through…some sort of effects thingamee.

Mushrooms & Roses – 5:43

Say You’ll Go is a more straightforward sophisticated ambient synth pop, kind of 80s-ish-mid 90s-ish. A little over 2/3 of the way through, the previously busy instrumental section just gives way to the piano playing Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy.

Say You’ll Go – 6:01

By now, Monáe started becoming better known. Not a superstar, but at least a name to remember. Her reputation for wearing suits (even though that was far from always the case) as well as her support for the LGBTQ community led some to wonder about her sexuality. She said at least once that she dates only androids…so, that settles that. She also became a CoverGirl Spokeswoman in 2012.

2013 saw the release of The Electric Lady, parts 4 and 5 of Monáe’s Metropolis opus. This is a continuation of the sounds that came before. The 60s elements however, were largely confined to the two opuses (oh, I didn’t mention that each suite starts with an opus) and a relatively short song. Along with the opuses, there are three interludes featuring a radio DJ named DJ Crash Crash discussing the situation with Cindi Mayweather and the various android-related material, just in case you ignored the various references in the songs proper. I am not particularly fond of either of these decisions, but it’s fine.

After the first opus, the first song is Givin’ Em What They Love, featuring the late great Prince. And it is a slithery funk rock number.

Givin’ Em What They Love – 4:26

A couple songs later is the (sort of) title track, Electric Lady, featuring Solange. You would not confuse it for a Hendrix track, though. Yeah, there is an electric guitar playing tasty licks in the background. But this is a 90s r&b song with a horn section and one of my favorite vocal melodies in the chorus. It also features Monáe rapping for a few bars in the middle. While she is fine for what she is trying to do, it works in only small doses, so I am glad that she limits it to certain parts of certain songs, such as here and Many Moons.

Electric Lady – 5:08

Named after the first American woman to go into space thirty years earlier, Sally Ride is a…is it prog rock? It is guitar-centric, but with a sting section and synth noises, and it kind of moves around in terms of song structure. You can sort of argue that there is a chorus, but it is kind of an afterthought at the point. Honestly, this song may be an awkward one on which to end this spotlight, given that it fades out rather unexpectedly instead providing any sort of big resolution. Still, I really like this song, and, like the song says, I have got the right to choose.

Sally Ride – 4:11

Between 2013 and now, Janelle Monáe has been quite busy. She contributed a song to an EP in 2015 that features Wondaland artists. I don’t like that song, so I am not featuring it. While not yet a household name, Monáe is well-known. Granted, not so much for her music. While I may have heard a couple of her singles a couple of times on the radio, I have heard her much more frequently singing those thirty-seconds of nothing on 2011’s We Are Young by fun. Instead, she has been getting acting parts. Though she had done some TV work here and there since 2009, it was 2014 that she entered movies, specifically Rio 2. Okay, so not so great, but she made up for it in 2016, with the Superbowl Pepsi commercial. I’m kidding. I mean her major part in Oscar Nominee Hidden Figures and her smaller, but still important part in Oscar WINNER Moonlight. I believe that she also played a part in the music for both movies, but I am not sure if that is true or to what degree. In any case, while she is already famous, she is bound to be a star anytime now.

Oh, and I read that she is working on her next album.