I love music that disproves the currently prevailing theory that all black folks know how to do musically is either rhyme about thuggin’ or sing slow booty jams. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things per se-but I prefer my music to have a little more substance while still being palatable. Which is why when it comes to rhymin’: Jigga? Yes. Gucci Mane or Rick Ross? No. Maxwell? Yes. Trey Songz…he’s getting there, but not quite yet.
However, a lot of Black folks (or at least, people who run “black” radio stations or “black” media publications) tend to cast aside anything that doesn’t conform to the status quo as weird, which has prevented many a deserving artist from getting their due. To name a few: Terence Trent D’Arby. Meshell Ndegeocello. Cee-Lo (thought of by many as a one-hit wonder when he’s been dropping gems for two decades). Occasionally, they’ll give an unorthodox brother or sister a pass (think Andre 3000 or now-era Erykah Badu). But it’s hard for an artist of color these days to get over on music that isn’t in line with whatever Top 40 radio is playing this minute.
That said, it’s not often that an artist is mass-marketed as being “different” the way Janelle Monae has been. From the second I heard about this chick, the words “different” and “weird” followed her like a lost dog. She released an EP in the summer of 2008, and I was intrigued enough by her public profile (and the love that certain tastemakers had for her) that I bought it unheard. Didn’t feel it. Thought the weirdness was a little too forced. People who are different don’t TRY to be different-they just are.
Fast forward just under two years to the release of Monae’s official full-length debut, “The ArchAndroid”. Again, the huzzahs are flying left and right across the blogosphere saying that this is a hands-down classic piece of work. Again, I feel like the plaudits are somewhat misguided.
Not to say the lady’s untalented. Her voice is quite pretty, and she understands the art of vocal understatement as well as knowing when to show off (a rarity in today’s popular music world). There are symphonic interludes placed throughout the album that make me believe that Monae could very easily be doing the Leontyne Price thing if she wanted to.
But wait…did I just say that there were symphonic interludes on what’s basically a mainstream pop release? Yep, sure did. There’s also an adaptation of a Rodgers & Hart melody, songs that sound like Disney themes, a mean funk jam with a James Brown flavor that features a rap from OutKast’s Big Boi, a track with indie faves Of Montreal that sounds like Depeche Mode meets “Around the World in a Day”-era Prince meets I-don’t-know-what, topped off by a completely surreal album concept that doesn’t only scream “pretentious”, but shouts that shit through a gigantic megaphone.
Pretentiousness generally isn’t an issue for me. As I hinted at before, I think Terence Trent D’arby’s a fucking genius. I love Prince. But both of them also consistently wrote sharp melodies and amidst all of the experimentation, they knew (and still know) that the song came (and still comes) first. While Monae approaches that brilliance at times, like on first single “Tightrope” and the interesting-but-still-hummable “Cold War”, “The ArchAndroid” also has moments like “Neon Valley Street”, where tasteful production (think laid-back Badu) matches up against a pretty melody only to be completely derailed by some rapping dude that sounds like the guy from Newcleus. Even when the experimentation works, on songs like “O Maker” (think Arcade Fire meets “Parade”-era Prince) or “Come Alive” (which combines opera, Broadway melodies and heavy metal shrieking, if you can believe that combo), the strangeness seems a little contrived.
Understand, I’m not saying that “The ArchAndroid” is a bad album. Monae is talented, and I respect her for going off the beaten path. Ultimately, what keeps the album from going onto my top shelf is that the excesses aren’t properly reigned in and that the album is just TOO damn long (none of the interludes or experiments-like “Neon Gumbo”, which is a minute and a half of backwards music-are necessary to your enjoyment of this record). And I should probably also admit that maybe my appreciation for the album was compromised by the heightened expectations I had (which means that my opinion could well improve once the critical butt-kissing is forgotten). As it stands right now, however, “The ArchAndroid” is a striking, if challenging album that shows tremendous promise but turns out to only be intermittently enjoyable.