Musical alter-egos are nothing new. RZA famously rapped as Bobby Digital, Eminem as Slim Shady, Flying Lotus as Captain Murphy, and the list goes on. It seems like an interesting place for rappers to go with their medium, which is so often driven by narrative: characters, roles and story.
Janelle Monae might feel like an unlikely addition to the above crop of angry young men, but her storytelling is just as potent. Her most recent offering, 'The Electric Lady', is a wonderful, imaginative piece of work, brimming with captivating stories and characters. Following on from her debut LP, 'The Arch-Android', Monae continues to tell the tale of her alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, a runaway android in a dystopian future, in love with a human and threatened with disassembly for it.
The story is a perfect vessel for Monae’s music. It’s dramatic and passionate, but also fun, and never over-serious. Plot never gets in the way of the music - first and foremost the album remains a musical adventure, with varieties in genre and tone spanning the 19-song track listing that could on paper destabilise it, yet never do so.
Tracks like ‘Givin Em What They Love (Feat. Prince)’ and ‘Ghetto Woman’, have all the pulsating rhythm and staccato trumpet blasts of dance-floor fillers, but fit in effortlessly beside the orchestral flourishes of the intro and genre-pieces such as ‘Look Into My Eyes’. The album is structurally sound, glued together by interludes which thread through the Cindi Mayweather narrative, and prevent Monae’s ambitious intentions from weighing the album down.
Calling the album ‘The Electric Lady’ after The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ album seems a fitting homage to an influence that is clearly ever-present in Monae’s music. The album is littered with soaring guitar solos, and the whole spirit of the piece seems to channel 60s psychadelia as much it does more typical pop song formats. Its this blend of ideas that creates the powerful alchemy of Monae's 19-track epic, influenced not only by R&B pioneers and Hendrix, but science fiction filmmakers and writers from Fritz Lang to Philip K. Dick. I think it’s fair to say that ‘The Electric Lady’ is more than just a collection of songs, it’s a second chapter in Monae’s own story, and a modern odyssey.
Words: Francis Blagburn