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‘ArchAndroid’ features new talent: Janelle Monae

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

August 27, 2010

Janelle Monae’s debut full-length album “The ArchAndroid” begins with the sounds of an orchestra tuning its instruments in a concert hall, an audacious promise of a work epic in scope. Monae isn’t just teasing us with symphonic pretenses; the opening track is an actual orchestral overture, recalling the bombastic soundtracks of 1960s science fiction films. The first actual song, “Dance or Die,” is a tough, funky hip-hop number, something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by Monae’s mentors OutKast. From there, she shifts gears to the paranoid funk-pop of “Faster,” then to the bubbly but twisted love song “Locked Inside,”complete with a Santana-esque guitar solo. Throughout the entire album, the listener stays on his toes, through a smorgasbord of genre mash-ups that would become overwhelming if they weren’t unified by Monae’s electric rhythms and impeccable pop sensibilities.

At only 24-years-old, Monae is a relative newcomer, but she’s already built up an impressive resumé. She delivered blazing performances on two songs from OutKast’s 2006 effort “Idlewild,” and her 2007 EP “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)” garnered strong reviews and a Grammy nomination for the single “Many Moons.” “The ArchAndroid” picks up where “Metropolis” left off, providing the next two installments of a four-suite series telling the story of a messianic robot in a dystopian future society.

What makes “The ArchAndroid” particularly effective is the marriage of consistent sci-fi sounds and themes with a broad stylistic range. The album moves from lush dream pop (“Sir Greendown”) to wailing soul (“Oh, Maker”), from goofy bubblegum (“Wondaland”) to psychedelic space rock (“57821”). Monae has one of the most dynamic voices I’ve ever heard; she’s comfortable with pulsating alto rap, throaty vocal attacks, or beautiful balladeering. The eight-minute long “BabopbyeYa” begins with an Ella Fitzgerald-esque jazz crooning section, one of the highlights of the album.

Monae also brings some friends into the studio, yielding several successful collaborations. Big Boi, one of the best MCs in the business, joins her on the lead-off single “Tightrope” to deliver a thumping rap amidst an energetic funk song. “Make the Bus” is effectively an of Montreal song; the band performs on it, and Kevin Barnes wrote it and takes lead vocals. It bears all the hallmarks of recent of Montreal releases—electronic, danceable, androgynous vocals, and catchy if you can get over Barnes’ tendency towards overcomplexity.

“The ArchAndroid” isn’t a perfect album, and considering its length and ambition and Monae’s inexperience, there are several predictable clunkers. “Neon Gumbo” is a sound collage featuring backtracked vocals that would’ve sounded dated in the ’70s, and “Say You’ll Go,” the second-longest song on the album, never really does anything interesting. The fact remains, however, that Janelle Monae is the most exciting and visionary talent to emerge in quite a while, and “The ArchAndroid” has got to be the front-runner for the best album of the year. Monae is bringing her live show to Boston on Sept. 16, opening up for of Montreal at the House of Blues. Go see her now, because I’m sure this is the last chance you’ll get to see her as anything other than a headliner.

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