Janelle Monae ‘The Electric Lady’ – Review

13 Nov

‘The Electric Lady’ is so daunting that I nearly didn’t bother listening to it. It’s part four and five in a seven part ‘suite’, and tells the story of… well I’m still not really sure about that. It describes some kind of dystopian future where robots have superpowers. It’s frankly a bit ridiculous, but that ridiculousness is its saving grace. Monae never takes the story that seriously, and her ambiguous, inclusive lyrics invite interpretations that don’t necessarily rely on the concept. The spoken-word interludes provide humorous asides rather than chunks of narrative, so the story-line never really drags. ‘The Electric Lady’ is grandiose but it isn’t the grand failure it could so easily have been.

Monae is a music enthusiast, and she seems determined to provide her take on every genre ever created. On ‘Give em What they Love’ she out-shreeks Prince (literally – he is one of many guests on the record). On ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ she transforms into Beyonce. She explores hipster R&B with the oh too cool Miguel on ‘Primetime’ and less predictably post-WW2 pop on the sprightly ‘Dance Apocolyptic.’ Then there’s the John Barry inspired ‘Look Into My Eyes’ on which she gives her best vocal performance – essentially as a Shirley Basset impersonator.

This is all very impressive, and Monae proves herself to be a confident young auteur, but it leaves me feeling a little cold. There’s a distinct lack of real personality here; Monae tries on every outfit in the store, but she leaves without making a purchase. The lack of personality is matched by the lack of emotion. Her ambition is admirable but it’s useless if you never feel emotionally connected to the characters or stories. It doesn’t help that Monae’s voice, that instrument on which r&b so heavily relies, is not particularly striking. It’s tuneful and versatile, but it lacks range and depth. Monae is a fine interpreter but she never owns the melodies.

It’s best to view ‘The Electric Lady’ as some kind of exhibit on the history of pop music in miniature. Janelle Monae is your very knowledgeable tour guide. With her you will explore pop, soul, r&b and all the spaces in between. But like many exhibits, you arrive with good intentions and an open mind, and leave feeling exhausted, like it was all a little much to take in. You can admire the prog-rock concept, the Jazzy front cover, the psychedelic tinges and the various underground-soul signifiers, but they dont necessarily add up to a great record. Monae makes you want to explore P-Funk, she makes you want to listen to more Prince, but she doesn’t really make you want to listen to more Janelle Monae. If she really wants to connect on the same level as her idols, she needs to write from the heart and not the head. Most crucially, she needs to find a voice all of her own.


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