When Janelle Monae entered the music scene, with her sharp suit and tie, fantastically quiffed bouffant and immaculately soulful voice, she stole the eyes and ears of music fans worldwide. 2010’s debut album The ArchAndroid proved the singer’s style was backed with plenty substance. As she returns with her long awaited sophomore LP The Electric Lady, can she make it a repeat performance?
It quickly becomes apparent in the first minutes of The Electric Lady that Janelle Monae is not a woman to do things by halves; indeed, if the Suite IV Electric Overture – the cinematic introduction to her 19 track epic of a second album – were to have its own visual accompaniment, one would definitely not be surprised to see it overlaid with credits. The first song, proper, on the album is Give ‘Em What They Love, a song that is saturated in heavy R’n’B and carries the unexpected addition of ’80’s pop overlord, Prince. Somewhat surprisingly, the song manages to sound very reminiscent of Outkast, though given her affiliation with Big Boi n the early stage of her career, the general influence is not altogether unprecedented.
Q.U.E.E.N – aptly featuring the ‘Queen of Neo-Soul’ Erykah Badu – ups the ante with an exceedingly funky rhythm and makes reference to female empowerment and individuality and even manages to make a … current reference to ‘twerking in the mirror’. The title track, Electric Lady featuring Motown soul-songstress (and Beyonce’s little sister) Solange, is a potently epic number with a massive chorus, whilst Primetime – featuring smooth man of the moment Miguel – throws the listener a curveball in the form of a sultry, classy number that oozes desire from every pore, especially in the lyrics ‘It’s a primetime for our love, ain’t nobody peeking but the stars above’. We Were Rock ‘n Roll is an addictive retro-modern piece that is riddled with funk, and it is here that it hits home that this is an ambitious album that is large in scope; Monae is a storyteller lost in her own world, and the sci-fi aspect of her work is more resolutely reinforced by the interludes that earmark the album.
Things do a bit of a 180º post the alluring showtime extravaganza that is Suite V Electric Overture, as aside from the disco inspired Ghetto Woman, the ’70’s are transmitted once again via the yearningly soul-tinged It’s Code, whilst the backing vocals of Can’t Live Without Your Love bring to mind The Supremes. The other songs that comprise the latter segment of the album compile as a generally slower affair than the first half, though this is of no detriment to Monae, as despite songs in this half sounding similar at times, they are all of high quality.
It is clear that Monae – like the guests on her album – revels in the performance aspect of the singer-songwriter-musician spectrum. Case in point, turn an eye (or ear) to Look Into My Eyes, which successfully sees Monae immerse herself into the voice of her character, channelling spaghetti Western soundtrack influences to great effect. And speaking of immersion, as a spectator it is entirely hard to resist the charm of Monae’s voice, especially on Victory, where her vocal range scopes unexpected heights that would rival Beyonce. Ultimately, The Electric Lady is a work of grand scale, an opus crafted to showcase Monae’s vocal prowess and unbound creativity to full effect, and it does, as it proves to be a showreel of cinematic proportions.
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