Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is the best reviewed album from May, a month with releases from heavyweights like The National, Broken Social Scene, and The Black Keys, to name a few.
And it deserves the rave reviews.
To start, the album is a smorgasbord of influences. On my listens, here’s what I’ve been able to identify: James Brown, Audrey Hepburn, Claude Debussey, Renaissance Folk, Just Jack, Old School Boogie, Jimi Hendrix, Katamari Damacy, James Bond openers, Santana, Outkast and maybe some Spice Girls. While all of these sounds are identifiable, it’s impossible to deny that Monae has crafted them into a sound entirely her own. Clair de Lune shows up at the end of “Say You’ll Go,” but when it’s layered with eerie echo-y voices it fits perfectly. “Cold War” sounds like an entirely different take on Outkast’s “B.o.B.” with Monae’s voice holding it down. And she definitely channels James Brown’s “Sex Machine” in the album’s lead single “Tightrope.”
Speaking of “Tightrope,” her performance on Letterman a few nights ago is a great indicator of the energy and magnetism Monae brings to the album.
After the jump, the review
The album is also unsurprisingly incredibly diverse sonically. Top-notch production and a definite creative focus are able to hold it all together as its moves from orchestral suites to spacey crooners to giant pop extravaganzas. The focus of the album is important to note, because it keeps it from getting overly experimental or indulgent. It’s hard not to hear some of the The Love Below with this album, but where that album became tiresome and distracting, The ArchAndroid maintains its freshness by feeling concise. This is despite the album’s length,which at and hour and eight minutes is almost thirty minutes over the average forty-two minute album.
The ArchAndroid also feels new, something that hasn’t been felt for a while in pop music. It doesn’t contain any outright fads like AutoTune or Kanye’s soul-samples of old and it doesn’t fall outright into any particular genre. Monae definitely has a voice worthy of soul or R & B that she uses for the absolutely wonderful “Oh, Maker,” but she uses what could almost be called a rap for “Tightrope’s” verses–something that makes Big Boi’s feature perfectly at home–and she dramatically alters her voice in an almost Kid A fashion for “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Wondaland.” Her fearlessness to experiment is definitely evident, but it’s never so much that it becomes about the experiment and not the song. Simply, the experiment is always in service to the song, which is in turn in service to the entire album. You could strip these songs down to nothing but an acoustic guitar and it’d probably still make a pretty solid album which is important to note. Not that I’d ever want to do that considering how gorgeous the production on the album is.
The album’s low point is the collaboration with Of Montreal, “Make the Bus.” Written by Kevin Barnes, the song just sounds like an Of Montreal song and only seems to distract from Monae herself. While this wouldn’t be a problem too much, it’s placement in the second half of the album throws off the built-up investment in Monae’s new sound. When I was listening to it initially, I wanted to hear what she would pull out of her ass next, not the same thing Of Montreal has been doing for the past three years.
Most importantly for a pop album, it’s damn catchy. I can’t listen to “Tightrope” without getting its verse stuck in my head. “Wondaland” reminds me a lot of Katamari Damacy’s catchy Japanese pop and “Cold War’s” chorus is just a great hook. Each catchy little hook is never played out because of the album’s incredible diversity. It’s an album that can be listened to eight times in a row and still sound fresh. That’s an audacious statement to make this early in the game, but I’ve listened to it at least five times through since getting it and I haven’t begun to tire of it. In fact, it’s entirely eaten up my listening for the last straight day and a half. (Ed. Written as of Thursday, June 8th @ 3 am.)
OneThirtyBPM also has a great review [here] that’s worth checking out if you think I rambled and overpraised too much.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
I don’t give out grades, but this one comes with my full recommendation. Given that summer’s just beginning, I can think of no better album to through into the car and cruise to for the entirety of the next three months. I initially wanted to put the entire album up for streaming because I couldn’t decide which songs to put up to sample, but decided against it because I genuinely want people to buy this.
I also didn’t give it the masterpiece label because it wasn’t as deeply emotionally affecting as The National’s High Violet. I may rescind this come the end of the year.
But I settled on three tracks drastically different from each other to show just a tidbit of the diversity of the music. “Cold War” and “Tightrope” can also be easily found through a quick youtube or google search, if you really need more proof.
Janelle Monae – Oh, Maker [download](rightclick>saveas…)
Janelle Monae – Wondaland [download](rightclick>saveas…)
Janelle Monae – 57821 (Feat. Deep Cotton) [download](rightclick>saveas…)