Janelle Monae - Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition)

Posted August 15, 2008

There are very few times in my career that I get to write something like this, so excuse me if...

Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition) Album Review

There are very few times in my career that I get to write something like this, so excuse me if I take a moment to savor it. See, all I do is listen to music. I listen to calculated, soulless music designed to pad label execs’ bank accounts and I listen to fearless music from unsigned artists struggling to pay their rent. I listen to club music and street music and political music, music made to sooth you into sleep and music made to accelerate your heart rate like a Ferrari on the freeway. But rarely do I hear new music. Sure, I hear recent music, but new music is something else. Everything has its source, but new music takes its inspiration and transforms it into something original, something unmistakably stamped with the imprint of a soul. That’s why new music, truly new music, happens so rarely. This week, I’ve been listening to some of the newest music I’ve ever heard.

So who has me so wonderstruck? Here’s a few clues: she’s from a small Midwestern town, first got major exposure with Big Boi's Purple Ribbon, and recently sparked an outright bidding war between major labels, resulting in a euphoric Diddy signing her to Bad Boy. If you just answered Janelle Monae, congratulations, you know your music. Janelle’s unmistakably unique style’s been tearing through the underground and is now poised to explode onto the mainstream, first giving the world a sneak peek into her brave new musical world with her EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Editon). Part futuristic rock opera, part 50’s soul escapade, part hip-hop infused cinema, The Chase Suite is something unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Something...wait for it...new.

There might be other science fiction themed albums out there, but I can't think of one. Set in some unspecified time in the future, The Chase Suite tells the tale of a cyborg girl named Cindi who falls in love with a human boy, a crime punishable by death. The music twists and turns along with Cindi’s desperate attempts to escape, beginning with the surprisingly good times track Violet Stars Happy Hunting! Built around a bouncing guitar line and strong percussion, Violet Stars hums with energy, fueled by Monae’s ability to transform her voice from a Broadway musical diva to a snarling punk rock chick within seconds. It’s a work of intense imagination, and in this way she shares something in common with her Outkast associates: the music’s great, but half the fun is wondering what they’ll possibly come up with next. The EP’s continues along this story line, culminating in the orchestral Sincerely, Jane, a track that’s equal parts marching band and symphony, all suffused with the sound of Monae’s dynamic voice and piercing lyrics: “what good is love if it burns bright and explodes in flames?” It’s easy for an artist trying to earn creativity credit to simply mix strange sounds together, but with Janelle every element is purposeful and deliberate. Am I going overboard with all this praise? Probably, but I hear so much recycled garbage I’ve almost forgotten how to deal with something new. I’m just not going to say anything negative about Monae, creative bravery needs to rewarded.

The Chase Suite ends with two songs unrelated to the sci-fi adventure, and they do more to showcase Monae’s genre-breaking ability than the crazier material. Mr. President is a much-more straightforward soul and R&B track that’s doesn’t do anything complex - it’s just simple, good music. Most importantly Monae proves that she’s just as good without the conceptual special effects, even though frankly Mr. President’s not nearly as compelling. A lot of writers have struggled to compare Monae to other artists (most settle on a female Andre 3000 reference), but on the second bonus track Smile, Monae is unmistakably reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. Smile consists of only a lone guitar and Monae’s voice, a strong yet soft tone that rings with the same sort of heart that made Lauryn a sensational artist. But I don’t want to spend any longer wrapped up in comparisons. The truth is that Monae is on the verge of something major, something that has the potential to shake established music, and as long as she manages to avoid the myriad pitfalls of the music industry apparatus there’s no reason to believe she won’t. Someday we’ll look back on The Chase Suite as the first step in an epic journey, I hope. Here’s to hope.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted August 15, 2008
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