Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Album Review: "The ArchAndroid" by Janelle Monae

"MetPOPolis" is more like it! heyyyy

As a concerned citizen, I hope I'm not the first person to notice the curious similarities between Janelle Monae's new hit concept record The ArchAndroid and Styx's commercial magnum opus, 1983's Kilroy Was Here. Because they are blatant.

How so?? Well, just THINK about it:

1) Both take place in the future.
2) Both are about robots.
3) Both feature a song entitled "Cold War".

Surely, this is undeniable proof that Ms. Monae is a complete and utter ripoff artist and owes the 80s' finest rock vocalist, Mr. Dennis DeYoung, a hefty sum of dollars. How could so many venerable rock critics miss this one??

...ohoho. Jokes. No, really, The ArchAndroid is probably the furthest thing from a Styx album that I could imagine. Y'know - it doesn't suck.

Aha! Ha. No, that's also not fair. I have never sat down and listened to any Styx record, let alone Kilroy Was Here, and I most likely never will. But considering that Styx were a late 70s/early 80s progressive rock band, I can only assume they took their "robots in the future" storyline very seriously - a mistake that, thankfully, The ArchAndroid does not repeat. Like any decent concept album, the concept itself is just window dressing, an excuse to give a bunch of well-crafted pop/rock songs a sense of cohesion. Sure, Monae herself seems to have put a lot of thought into the "story" here (considering that she wants to turn it into a graphic novel and a Broadway show I guess that isn't too surprising), but the songs themselves are just so good that you don't need to follow along with the libretto to enjoy yourself. Thank God.

From the outset, you might mistake The ArchAndroid for a hip-hip/R&B/dance-pop record. Like I did! Monae is a protege of Puff Daddy and Outkast's Big Boi, after all, and the record's first single "Tightrope" is a funky, half-rapped modern dance track. But 'tis a ruse. Sure, a 70-minute modern R&B futuristic concept album would be a pretty cool idea on its own, but rap and R&B make up only a small part of Monae's anything-goes pop vision. Epic rock? Jazz? Disco? Goofy whiteboy indie-dance? Late 60s-esque psychadelic folk? Heavily-orchestrated movie soundtracks?? Man, it's all here, and it all works. Somehow.

In most ArchAndroid reviews I've read, comparisons to Michael Jackson and Prince abound, and, well... yeah, I guess that's fair. But she's never derivative of them. Sure, "Locked Inside" sounds like an Off The Wall outtake (right down to nicking "Rock With You"'s opening drumfill - you can't fool me, Janelle!!), but it's so gosh-darned well-executed that I can't help but enjoy it. As for Prince, well, just a cursory glance over the tracklisting will give that one away ("Neon Valley Street", "Wondaland," and "57821" come to mind). But it's also worth mentioning that the most obviously Prince-inspired track here, the gorgeously epic "Mushrooms & Roses," is easily my favorite song on the album, reaching the dizzily romantic heights of Purple Rain's best tracks.

Yes. And there are many other impressive songs here. "Tightrope" might not be representative of the rest of the record, but it's a great single anyway, featuring a welcome guest rap from Big Boi himself. Other highlights include the relentlessly catchy, surprisingly dramatic "Cold War" (featuring a fierce guitar solo in its closing moments); the completely adorable singalong folk-pop of "Oh, Maker"; and the manic, fast-paced bebop of "Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)," featuring maybe Monae's most intense vocal performance on the entire album. But still, that's only a sampling of what you're gonna find here.

Now I only mentioned it in passing before, but yes, this record is a full 70 minutes long. Anybody familiar with this blog - and with me - knows that I can't stand bloated, unnecessarily long records, even by bands that I love. But I give Monae a free pass here, for two reasons: one, these songs are so good that I never get tired of them (no small feat); two, Monae had the good sense to divide the record up into two distinct halves, dubbed "Suite II" and "Suite III". As such, you could think of The ArchAndroid as two records in one. By that criteria, "Suite II" is definitely the better record, containing most of The ArchAndroid's best tracks and ending with the aforementioned zenith of "Mushrooms & Roses"; "Suite III", while still excellent, slows things down a bit with longer, more atmospheric songs. Sure, it's got the warped-pop glory of "Wondaland" and the eerie dark folk of "57821," but it's also got my least favorite track on the record: "Make The Bus," featuring Of Montreal. It's not just a guest appearance - Kevin Barnes wrote it and sings lead vocal. It's pretty much an Of Montreal track, kinda-sorta featuring Janelle Monae. Of Montreal fans might like it, but man, I like Monae a lot more than Kevin Barnes; hearing her disappear in the middle of her own record is pretty jarring. It's like someone switched CDs on me, all the sudden! Yeesh!! (Also, it's kind of an annoying song.)

But hey. I'm nitpicking. Even if I'm not crazy about the Of Montreal track, the very fact that it's here should give you an impression of how far Monae is willing to reach. To put it bluntly, The ArchAndroid is a record that has made me very happy. It is a pop record in the very best sense of the term - catchy, well-produced, and playful, incorporating a whole bunch of styles without sounding silly or gimmicky. And it only came out, like, a month ago! Man! That's got me excited!!

My memo to Ms. Monae: please continue doing whatever the fuck you want to do for future releases. Just... don't let the bright lights of Broadway get to your head. We don't need another Starlight Express.

P.S.: The missing part here, "Suite I," was an EP Monae released a couple years before the album called Metropolis: The Chase Suite. It lacks the intoxicating pull of ArchAndroid, but it's still got some great tracks, and if you're really into the concept here it's essential listening.

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