janelle monae the archandroid (suites II and III)
  • MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2010

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Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid opens with the all the theatricality expected of someone with such gravity defying hair, someone whose stage antics rivaled those of Of Montreal when she opened for them on their 2009 tour. The drama doesn't die after the first track, but carries through into the second track, which without notice merges into the third, which in turn becomes the fourth. Sadly this chain of metamorphoses cannot continue forever. By this point my hopes had risen dangerously, to the extent that I expected the entire album to be one cohesive piece, a fierce hip-hop robot's take on narrative classical music (a la Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf) &mdash but this dream was ruined by a string of soul-sinking studio fades.

Monae's debut full length is outrageously ambitious and preposterously imaginative, an hour-long genre-defying concept album with inspiration drawn from a Weimar-era German sci-fi film. For all this ambition, the closure isn't there. By any normal standards, The ArchAndroid is a solid, gripping album, nicely varied with a lot of interesting songs. But Monae raised the expectations, and didn't necessarily meet them. It isn't what was promised, and unless you've read up on the idea behind the record and sit down to listen with a purpose, you're likely not going to end up listening start to finish. For a little background, The ArchAndroid chronicles parts two and three in the four part saga of alien android Cindi Mayweather, the first chapter of whose excursions were laid out in Metropolis (The Chase Suite), released in 2007.

If I can get over the (maybe unfair) standards I held this album to, there's really some great, even awesome music. The genre spans a vast range from the rainy-day love song "Oh, Maker" to the predominantly hip-hop track "Tightrope" (featuring Big Boi), and Monae pulls all of it off. Her incredible voice fits the mellow to the manic, and the layering of beats and instruments (strings, horns, whatever it takes) is absolutely perfect. She gets it just right on the Fred Astaire-esque intro to "Neon Valley Street," the spooky rockabilly feel on "Come Alive," the tight rhythmic "Dance or Die," and the drawn-out orchestral parts of "BaBopByeYa" and "Suite Overture"s II and III. The range fits well with the concept as well &mdash "Wondaland" is weird and alien enough sounding to really remind you of the idea behind the album, while other songs stay in keeping with that vibe but preserve her soulful vibe, not sacrificing her funk for the sake of the story. She achieved the same on Metropolis though, maybe better, with songs like "Mr.President" keeping interest in the story while "Many Moons" combines orchestral overtures, sci fi, and modern soul.

In case this bouncing back and forth between commending Monae for just the right amount of concept and lamenting her going about it all wrong is starting to confuse, critiquing ArchAndroid is a strange struggle between the music and the album. The music itself is distinctive, soulful with something new to bring to the table, and I'd probably give it four out of five stars. But the album as an entity I'd give two stars. It's weak, with the multiple studio fades (acceptable in some situations, but not on a record intended as a cohesive concept album) throwing your focus or interest &mdash no matter how many times I tried to listen straight through, I would end up without noticing walking away from the headphones to do something else, completely distracted.

Janelle Monae is a fearless artist with a unique creative point of view and incredibly charged music, and in time clearly she has a lot to say. But The ArchAndroid is not the step it could have been, a disappointing follow up to Metropolis which doesn't fulfill expectations set by Monae's pre-release discussion of the album. Definitely give some tracks a listen, but try to forget the epic saga you've been promised if you want to really enjoy it. -selden paterson

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MP3: "Shutterbug"
Janelle Monae on Myspace

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