ARTIST Janelle Monae
ALBUM The Electric Lady
LABEL Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boys
RELEASE DATE 10.9.2013
7.9 | 10
It’s telling that Janelle Monáe’s biggest hit came in the form of an anonymous vocal performance on fun.’s inescapable 2012 anthem “We Are Young.” To this point, Monáe’s solo material has been met with indifference by Top 40 radio programmers, with her retro-futuristic aesthetic hard to pin a label on. It’s for that reason that her 2010 critical breakthrough, the fantastic The ArchAndroid, was so warmly received; her ability to alternate between multiple genres allowed her personality to shine through. On her first solo album since The ArchAndroid, Monáe tries her hand at a commercial slam dunk. Her drive to put a label on herself and her music acts as the biggest barrier between making The Electric Lady another great album from Miss Monáe and a foreseeable sophomore setback.
While The Electric Lady has a remarkably consistent and pristine sound, its all a little too house-of-cards to be able to hold itself up. While there are some wonderful moments to be discovered, a lot of the concepts seem a little overcooked. Some of the best moments are when Monáe spontaneously unleashes her inner rap superstar, as she does with rapid fire verses on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Electric Lady,” and “Ghetto Woman,” a lovely tribute to her mother. The latter also exemplifies the struggles of Lady, with an unnecessary guitar solo getting the last word on the song.
Working with legends (Prince, Erykah Badu) and up-and-coming R&B stars (Miguel, Solange) brings the best out of Monáe, who interacts with her guests in highly charismatic fashion. That she steals the spotlight from her collaborators is hardly surprising, but their overall lack of cohesion is. Having the guests appear on the first four tracks helps create a top-heavy listening experience, challenging the listener to stay put while the rest of the party has gone home.
Short skits are dispersed throughout the proceedings, and do more to act as detours than helpful road signs. Monáe has proven herself to be an enormous talent with big ideas capable of being realized, yet a little restraint here and there would have made The Electric Lady an album in the same league as The ArchAndroid. Songs such as “It’s Code,” and the blissful “What an Experience,” are among the best Monáe has recorded to date. “Experience” in particular captures a kinetic energy that subtly manifests itself throughout the track. It’s one of the few moments of introspection for Monáe, and it’s the most euphoric we hear the Electric Lady. To put it frankly, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music released all year.
The cover of The Electric Lady shows six different versions of Monáe, and throughout the album we for those voices to stand up and speak out. So while this new set does have its moments of brilliance, it is ultimately a disjointed, unevenly paced record that suffers from the same things that makes it so brilliant.