There’s no shortage of pessimists ready to tear the life out of every album that dares to breathe, but there are also legions of fans falling over themselves to proclaim everything that doesn’t suck a classic. That kind of Prozac-fueled enthusiasm isn’t nearly as insidious as hate, but it does have the unfortunate effect of dulling the impact of the truly praiseworthy. Call it “the boy who cried dope” syndrome. If everything’s the greatest, what do we call the greatest?
I laid out that intro so you’d believe me when I say Janelle Monae’s new album The ArchAndroid is the most creative and ambitious work I’ve heard in years. Perhaps because of her Outkast affiliation, Monae is constantly compared to Andre 3000, but in terms of her willingness to push boundaries, she makes Andre look like Ray J. I mean, we’re talking about a project that credits someone named Wolfmaster Z for playing the marimba and theremin!
A continuation of her Metropolis EP, which she began before signing to Bad Boy (keeping Diddy off the album is an achievement in itself), The ArchAndroid tells the tale of an android in search of love in an unforgiving world, but while that narrative structure certainly gives hardcore fans plenty to diagram, those who simply want to listen will find themselves bombarded, caressed and then bombarded again by an album that sounds, at varying points, like the London Philharmonic, The Who, James Brown, Simon and Garfunkel, Etta James and more. What does such an incredibly diverse array of influences sound like? They sound like Janelle Monae.
The ArchAndroid is at its most accessible when it grooves, so I can’t think of a better entry point to the album than the dance-inducing "Tightrope." Set off by a retro-R&B guitar line and clapping percussion, Monae propels the track forward with defiantly smooth vocals, capped off by a predictably memorable Big Boi verse and a hitting horn section. Having successfully channeled the Godfather of Soul most artists would be content to call it a day, but Monae can’t help but add in a ukulele and turntable scratches. Importantly, such additions never feel superfluous on The ArchAndroid, not even on "Tightrope"'s sister track "Cold War," which takes its base, amps up the tempo and allows Monae to begin to showcase her vast vocal range. Fittingly, "Cold War" sounds like a dance party at the end of the world. While, ironically, the more subdued Dance or Die isn’t quite as toe-tapping, it does move and proves Monae can rap, or at least quasi-rap. Tracks like these, and the swirling "Faster," harken to a time when people danced because it felt joyful, not because they were looking to dry-hump whoever was drunk enough to let them.
Among the cinematic sci-fi storylines and endlessly surprising sonic twists and turns it’s easy to lose track of the album’s most powerful instrument; Monae’s voice. Not wanting to distract listeners with operatic flourishes when not necessary, Monae consistently errs on the side of restraint (call her the anti-Mariah Carey), but make no mistake, at its height her voice is stronger and more expressive than many more well-known singers. "Neon Valley Street" slows the pace down to a simmer so she can warm the track with grippingly personal tones (shades of Lauryn Hill), and on "Locked Inside" she overlays a mid-tempo joint that begins like a soul song, bounces into an almost disco chorus and then ends with amped, classic rock vibe. But nowhere on ArchAndroid do we get a truer sense of what Monae is capable of than on the closing track "BaBopByeYa," an orchestral epic that finds Monae coasting between Billy Holiday jazz, Broadway monologues and, finally, complete unrestrained vocal fireworks. The versatility is staggering.
Like all writers confronted with Monae’s work, I find myself relying heavily on comparisons because The ArchAndroid is uncharted territory, and when we can’t recognize our surroundings we search for familiar landmarks. It’s hard to describe, let alone accurately judge, an album that contains both acoustic folk ("Oh, Maker"), electronic experimentalism ("Neon Gumbo") and an actual symphony ("Suite II Overture"), without searching for the solid ground of comparison. But the truth is that Monae has done something extraordinarily rare in the digital age; created a completely and utterly original album. The ArchAndroid isn’t perfect—on occasion, tracks fall out of orbit and go floating into space—but for all its far-reaching musical journeying, it stays remarkably grounded. So feel free to break out all the praise you want. Finally, we have an album worthy of it all.