by Shane Thomas

Janelle-Monae-feature-e1377108379882I’ve written before about Janelle Monae. Writers such as Emily J. Lordi and Trudy from Gradient Lair have  reviewed Monae’s sophomore album, The Electric Lady, at length. My review will go through the record track by track, and see if it justifies its warm critical reception:

1) Suite IV: Electric Overture

This feels like the opening credits of a Western. It evokes an image of Janelle’s alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather riding into town.

2) Givin’ ‘Em What They Love w/Prince

“I am sharper than a razor/Eyes made of lasers/Bolder than the truth!”

The “ch-ch-ch-ch” chain gang sound that leads us into the lyrics feel like a train slowly pulling out of the station, ready to pick up speed.

Initially, it seems like a bombastic, self-aggrandising tune, with Monae gasconading on how she’s about to give us what we love. However, in the bridge, Janelle implores the listener to; “Take your time! Take what you love!”

The theme of speaking about herself, while simultaneously trying to inspire others, runs throughout the album.

3) Q.U.E.E.N w/Erykah Badu

“You can take my wings, but I’m still gon’ fly/And even when you edit me, the booty don’t lie!”

I’ve previously said this was one of the best feminist anthems I’d ever heard. However, Q.U.E.E.N may not be a feminist anthem at all, but rather a womanist anthem. The song  is a celebration of behaviour that is often looked upon with scorn. There’s more than one way to be a woman, and there’s no room for respectability politics in the world of Cindi Mayweather.

At one point Janelle says, “I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say.” She then proceeds to deliver a coruscating rap verse. If you didn’t understand her before, you will now.

4) Electric Lady w/Solange

“I’ll reprogram your mind/Come on, get in/My spaceship leaves at ten.”

The production has a more laid back feel, as if the firm 1-2 punch of the first two songs necessitated a cooling-off period. While I was happy to see Solange included on the album (she seems a creative kindred spirit), she didn’t seem to add much to the song.

Electric Lady has grown on me with repeat listens. Here again, Janelle shows off her ability as a rapper[1]. She’s worked closely with Outkast’s Big Boi in the past. However, the line; “Whether in Savannah/Ka-Kansas/Or in Atlanta” is pure Andre 3000.

5) Primetime w/Miguel

“It’s a primetime/For our love/And heaven is bettin’ on us.”

A straight-up love ballad. It’s not one of my favourites, but as love ballads go, it ticks the boxes. Given its nature, the introduction of Miguel to partner Janelle on the track is a sound one. While Prince may have departed on the album, his influence remains, as Kellindo Parker’s guitar solo is reminiscent of Purple Rain.

6) We Were Rock n’Roll

“And I remember/the smell of guns/War lived in me/but love finally won.”

While I’ve think Janelle is strongly redolent of Prince, much of The Electric Lady bears resemblance to  1980’s Michael Jackson. The song has Janelle reminiscing on the intoxicating flush of falling in love.

It’s more of a solid album track, but I suspect it will work best when performed live. As Kellindo Parker plays his guitar solo, I’d expect Janelle to rip up the stage when she performs this one for an audience.

7) Dance Apocalyptic

“You’re asking why/The pain is always equal, but the joy just never spreads around.”

This is a song where the sugar helps the medicine go down. It addresses the banality of life, which slowly drains us of our vitality and purpose. However, the relentlessness of the drums give the song a sharp rhythmical potency. It feels like an aural perpetual motion machine, and has strong comparisons with Prince’s 1999 – another danceable track about the end of all things.

8) Look Into My Eyes

Look into my eyes/Fall in love with me.”

A few seconds of this, and you think, “Is this a cover of a James Bond theme?”[2]. It’s not often that Monae’s vocals are at such a high pitch. She does well to get her voice about an octave higher on this track.

9) Suite V: Electric Overture

This instrumental continues on the same dreamy vein as Look Into My Eyes. It then takes a curious, but not unwelcome turn, as we get a lounge version of both Dance Apocalyptic and the upcoming Ghetto Woman.

10) It’s Code

“But I was scared to fall in love/I never thought I’d be the one/That would push you in her arms.”

Had this song been released 20 years ago, it might have been featured during this scene from Jackie Brown[3]. It’s a winsome time capsule, and it’s uncanny how much vocally Janelle sounds like a young Michael Jackson on this one.

The track’s languid nature means that how you react to this may depend on what social situation you’re in. As it fades to a close, we get a sudden speeding up of the drums. This smoothly facilitates the transition into Ghetto Woman.

11) Ghetto Woman

“Carry on, ghetto woman/Even though they laugh and talk about the clothes you wear.”

The best song on the record. It takes a sledgehammer to class shaming, and could function as an anthem to working-class women, especially working-class women with children, even more so working-class women of colour with children.

It’s a brilliant demonstration of how Janelle can speak to both the individual and the collective. While the lyrics denote a love letter to her mother, the song also champions many other women (not just mothers).

The production is very Off The Wall era-Michael Jackson, and if he were still with us, I could envision MJ doing his own version of the song[4]. As Kellindo Parker gives us another superb guitar solo, this will be the part of a live performance when Janelle dances herself into oblivion.

12) Victory

If loving you means fighting till the end/Then I’ll fight harder baby, just to win.”

After the blistering Ghetto Woman, Victory is a well-advised change of pace. The song documents the early and agonising stages of a break-up. Not knowing the best way to react, Janelle (or is it Cindi?) resorts to anger and frustration.

She’s not to blame for the parting of the ways, or is she? The track is sung with a soupçon of defiance that suggests she’s trying to convince herself it wasn’t her fault. For now, love is a game, and she refuses to lose. It’s another album high-point..

13) Can’t Live Without Your Love

“Take my letters/Take my photos/Take the sun/You can take my heart/’Cos I ain’t gonna need it on the run.”

The bitterness from Victory is gone. Cindi is sad, and appears to have given up on love altogether. This is another track with a smooth 70’s R’n’B vibe.

I haven’t spoken much about Janelle’s voice, which is an overlooked part of her talent.  Her vocal on this is arguably the best one on the album.

14) Sally Ride

“I know you love me, but I’m still gone/I got to make my peace/I got to move on.”

When putting oneself back together, introspection is needed. And Sally Ride seems to be that period of introspection for Cindi. I struggled to get on board with this song, mainly because the melody felt staccato and uneven. It felt a bit like a stream of consciousness.

15) Dorothy Dandridge Eyes w/Esperanza Spalding

“Gives you visions in her mind/She’s from another space and time.”

Of the collaborators on this album, I always felt Esperanza Spalding was an ideal fit for Janelle. And so it proved, as they make a marvellous tag-team.

This time Janelle places a singular woman on a pedestal, but when that woman is Dorothy Dandridge, it’s easy to see why. Janelle recently explained why the aforementioned Dandridge was such an inspiration.

16) What An Experience

“The world’s just made to fade/And all the parties someday blow away/But the memories come home/It’s funny how they come back with a song.”

electrigladyCindi’s journey has come full-circle, and she may be back on the road to happiness. While I never thought I’d invoke the solo career of Lionel Richie in a positive way, the production feels a bit like something he would have done in the 80’s.

It has a “last song of the night” feel. Everything’s winding down, and here’s the final gift before we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

The album’s spoken-word interludes link the passages of the record neatly, similar to the role played by Samuel L. Jackson’s, Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do The Right Thing.

The reaction to this album from some of the people I follow on Twitter has been rhapsodic. Comparisons to Lauryn Hill’s, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill don’t seem hyperbolic.

Often, we like an artist because their work feels like it was made directly for us. For some, Janelle’s work has a similar effect. And the way she speaks to women, especially women of colour should not be ignored.

[1] Many R’n’B artists would have hired more established rappers, rather than do the verses themselves.

[2] This needs to happen.

[3] Yes, I did play the Jackie Brown scene on mute, with It’s Code playing in the background to see if it fit.

[4] Just had a horrible thought. With no Michael around, Justin Timberlake’s going to cover this, isn’t he? I’m a JT fan, but it’s an emetic prospect.

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting HistoryHe is also a contributor to Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply SyndicatedA lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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