Janelle Monae: Celebrating The Electric Lady
As Janelle Monae prepares to tour her latest album Dirty Computer, Shaun Ponsonby writes a gushing tribute and picks apart the artistry of the Electric Lady.
This article was originally published in April 2018.
It is hard to put into words quite what Janelle Monae has become. She is a performance artist as much as a musician. Like George Clinton before her, she has built a world with fully fleshed out characters and concepts.
Her new album, Dirty Computer, is released on Friday (27th April). Up until now, each of her releases have been part of The Metropolis Suite; a sprawling, epic afrofuturistic tale of a messianic android – Monae’s alter ego, Cyndi Mayweather – and features lyrical themes of love, identity and self-realisation.
Cyndi Mayweather is the mediator between the minority and the majority. She is the Messiah. And when she returns, there will be freedom for the Android community.
In Metropolis, the androids are slaves to the humans, and segregated by law. The opening of the first suite, released on 2007’s The Chase EP, explains the main plot clearly:
“Android number 57821 otherwise known as Cyndi Mayweather has fallen madly in love with a human, Anthony Greendown. And you know the rules, she is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street district on the fourth floor in the Leopard Plaza apartment complex. The droid control marshals are full of fun rules today; no phases, only chainsaws and electro-daggers. Remember only card carrying hunters can join our chase today, and as usual there will be no reward until her cyber-soul is turned into the star commission. Happy hunting!”
Considering this is Monae’s first release, and comes in the era of hope and positivity presented by the upcoming election of Obama, it is a fairly radical way to introduce yourself. Between the segregation, the slavery and hunting Mayweather in order to disassemble her, it becomes a pretty obvious metaphor for the black struggle.
It may not even be limited to the black struggle. For Monae, androids represent the “Other”. As she explained to London Evening Standard; “You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman… what I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘Other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am.'”
This is only underlined in the lyrics for the rapped section of The Chase track Many Moons, which brings together a myriad of images from communities who have been “othered”;
“Civil rights, civil war
Hood rat, crack whore
Closet drunk, bathtub
Stepchild, freak show
Black girl, bad hair
Broad nose, cold stare
Tap shoes, Broadway
Creative black, Love song
Stupid words, erased song
Gun shots, orange house
Dead man walking with a dirty mouth
Spoiled milk, stale bread
Welfare, bubonic plague
Record deal, light bulb
Keep back kid now corporate thug
Breast cancer, common cold
HIV, lost hope
Overweight, self esteem
Misfit, broken dream
Fish tank, small bowl
Closed mind, dark hold
Cybergirl, droid control
Get away now they trying to steal your soul
Microphone, one stage
Street fight, bloody war
Instigators, third floor
Promiscuous child, broken heart
Heroin user, coke head
Final chapter, death bed
Plastic sweat, metal skin
Metallic tears, mannequin
Carefree, night club
Closet drunk, bathtub
White house, Jim Crow
Dirty lies, my regards”
It may be a little dangerous to bring Beyonce into this, but it is interesting to compare the two.
Following her spectacular Coachella performances, Beyonce is widely being hailed as not only the finest example of a powerful, black woman, but also the Michael Jackson of our day.
It is true, and not just because she is probably the most recognisable and iconic live performer of our time, but because their career paths are similar. Both are essentially capitalist artists where the dollar is more powerful than the sword. As James Brown once said “Black power is green power” – which is a perfectly valid route to take.
I’m not going to be so arrogant as to pick apart Bey’s motives too much – that isn’t my place for a whole host of reasons – but I have never been sure if it is genuine woke-ness that has encouraged her to speak out as a strong, black feminist, or simple market research.
Lest we forget, Beyonce was uneasy about labelling herself a feminist for the longest time, and there are even some pretty slut shaming songs in her back catalogue (Destiny’s Child’s Nasty Girl springs to mind).
Both Bey and Jackson didn’t really touch social politics until it no longer posed a commercial risk. For Jackson, this is most notable in They Don’t Care About Us in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the O.J. phenomenon. For Beyonce, it was the events surrounding Black Lives Matter.
Now this isn’t to diminish either’s achievements or what they mean to people. It is extremely likely that Beyonce‘s feelings have changed since she sang Nasty Girl, for example, and it is telling that she no longer performs it.
Furthermore, her motives are unimportant as far as audience impact is concerned – the young girls who grew up loving the Spice Girls were inspired by the “Girl Power” message and not the marketing ploy backing it up, so it was positive. The effect on the audience is the important thing, and it is vital to have those powerful figures from minority communities, especially when we are living in a capitalist structure.
In short, you need people like Beyonce for people like Janelle to exist.
Monae has been consistent. This is what she is about. This is what she defiantly stands for, and she has never compromised it for mass consumption. And what she stands for has always been risky to a commercial venture.
This is true even of the movies she has chosen to star in; Hidden Figures and the Oscar winner for Best Picture Moonlight. Both are almost defiantly mainstream black films, with the former providing a history lesson for black women, and the latter providing mainstream visibility for queer black people.
This is why it made so much sense for her to take such a lead in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Aside from performing, speaking and marching at numerous rallies, she released Hell You Talmbout with her Wondaland collective. Mixing African drumming with gospel, it listed various African American victims of fatal police brutality, before angrily urging the listener to “say their name“, thus humanising the people who are often written off as a statistic.
It was supremely powerful, political and anti-establishment.
So to that end, if Beyonce is Michael Jackson, Janelle is Prince.
Maybe not in terms of pure musicality (Prince was on his own planet in that regard), but Monae isn’t necessarily operating on a mainstream level. She is capable of making crowd pleasing songs, but is hugely experimental with her music and presents a message that could potentially harm commercial success. She has refused to stick within the accepted parameters since day one.
When she released her debut long player The ArchAndroid in 2010, she expanded on the themes and storyline on The Chase. It was a sprawling, daring piece of art.
Monae was fully aware of her cultural past and applied it to modern day. This isn’t just true of the classic funk of Tightrope, or the rap on Dance or Die, but also the electronica on Cold War, the psychedelia on Mushrooms and Roses, the apocalyptic post-punk of Come Alive (The War of The Roses).
Then Wondaland sounds like Tom Tom Club, 57821 sounds like Simon and Garfunkel in space, whilst the following Say You’ll Go features a classical interlude from Debussy’s Clair De Lune (the only obvious sample on the whole album). Then the whole album ends with the epic, nine minute, Latin Jazz influenced BabopbyeYa.
This is not an album made by somebody looking for hits. This is somebody with their eyes on a totally different prize, like her Purple predecessor decades earlier.
That said, there were several potential hits on the album. Tightrope became an instant cult favourite, as did Cold War. Locked Inside had a chorus that I defy you to forget.
Similarly, follow-up The Electric Lady featured songs like Dance Apocalyptic, a pure pop song which surely would have tore up the charts if released by someone at Rihanna levels of fame, and PrimeTime, a gorgeous slow jam duet with Miguel which inspired thousands of YouTube covers.
But despite their potential, being released by her own Wondaland Arts Society in conjunction with Bad Boy Records, they were never going to travel too far beyond her core audience.
Yet Wondaland is concurrently a major part of her appeal. There is an entire aesthetic, an ideology which is best expressed through Janelle/Cyndi. They described themselves has having “no laws, there is only music. Funk rules the spirit. And punk rules the courtrooms and marketplace. Period.”
There is a warmth about this kind of family image being projected. It is one of the reasons why, say, Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band are considered one of the world’s greatest live acts. You don’t just want to consume it, you want to be a part of it.
It is even true of the big stars with whom Monae chooses to collaborate.
Take Q.U.E.E.N. from The Electric Lady. A powerful feminist cry for the ostracised and marginalised in society. She probably could have quite easily called up someone like Nicki Minaj to duet on it, especially considering Monae’s rap section at the end. I mean, it would probably garnered more attention, right?
But she didn’t – she called up Erykah Badu, who hasn’t even released an album in years, and hasn’t had a chart hit since 2002. Monae had opened for Badu a number of years earlier, and clearly struck up a friendship, and it shows in both the song and its video.
Wondaland has now expanded. In 2015, they signed the entire operation to Epic Records, with The Eephus EP introducing acts such as Deep Cotton and Jidenna, who would garner critical acclaim for his 2017 debut album The Chief.
This is also harks back to Prince (and George Clinton before him), who created an entire sound in Minneapolis, populating it with musicians from his artistic community. Perhaps this was one of the aspects of what Monae presents that interested him so much. He ended up mentoring her – taking her out on tour, and ultimately becoming one of the few artists he openly collaborated with.
Over the years, Prince often wrote songs for other people, but he rarely collaborated. He would write the song, record the instrumentation and instruct the singer how to sing it. He ruled the roost.
But it seems different with Janelle. He respected her artistry enough to let her lead; one of the few instances where he ever let somebody else lead.
He didn’t write Give Em What They Love, the opening track on 2013’s The Electric Lady album. In fact, Monae has spoken about how Prince took direction from her rather than vice versa; “It was an organic process. I actually got the opportunity to produce him. Of course, I had to come with my ideas, I was still nervous – because he doesn’t collaborate. It didn’t take him long at all to do his part. I still can’t believe he’s on the album.”
If that wasn’t enough, the lead single from the upcoming Dirty Computer is Make Me Feel; a bisexual anthem that former Prince DJ Lenka Paris – and later Janelle herself – confirmed was based on a groove written by The Purple One.
Monae has been coy about confirming how she identifies in the past, stating that she “only dates androids”. The song itself doesn’t even make it abundantly clear, but it is certainly heavily represented in the video.
Aside from the obvious nods to Prince, particularly Kiss and My Name Is Prince, the video is lit in neon pink and blue, the colours of the bisexual pride flag (which also seemed prominent in the previous video for PrimeTime). She spends the video acting flirtatious with both men and women, and one telling scene where she runs between the man and the woman of her desires.
Another single from the album, the Grimes-featuring PYNK, also flirts with the imagery, whilst equally pushing a feminist viewpoint.
She even has a quirky sense of humour with it. Throughout, she wears what can only be described as “Vagina Pants” straight out of the Peaches book of art.
At one point there are close ups of a succession of women wearing panties with various messages inscribed. One has comically over the top public hair poking out, exclaiming “Sex Cells”, and the final one references Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy” remark with the message “I grab back”.
It is remarkably outspoken, and a far cry from her more metaphorical past. During The ArchAndroid, despite the futuristic look of the album cover, Monae was dressed pretty conservatively in a black tuxedo which allowed a few James Brown nods in her stage act. The Electric Lady era featured a similar get up.
Explaining her look at the time, Monae explained; “I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman. I don’t believe in men’s wear or women’s wear, I just like what I like. And I think we should just be respected for being an individual.”
It’s worth pointing out that while it is only recently that such intense discussions about gender have spilled into the wider public arena, Janelle uttered these words nearly a decade ago.
Even more outspoken is Django Jane, a heavy hitting hip hop track that you wouldn’t have expected to find on her previous albums.
She told The Guardian that it was written as “a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades“.
There is one line in particular that stands out; “Let the vagina have a monologue“. She matched it with a striking image in the video, ensuring that it would stand out. Monae has built her community and perfected her art on her own terms. Now she’s coming out swinging. The white man’s world WILL listen to what her and every other woman in the world has to say.
This, then, means that the upcoming Dirty Computer is a new side of Janelle Monae.
She admitted as much herself, telling Zane Lowe; “I’m actually terrified. I mean yeah, it’s such an honest body of work and I don’t know how people are going to react to it… Just the thought of it is kind of freaking me out a little bit but I feel like it’s something that I need to do. It’s something that I always knew I needed to do and it’s going to happen. The album is going to happen, it’s coming. You know all I can say is at least I’ve been very honest.”
While she has been forthright about what she stands for, never before has she been so open on a personal level. Is the album still a part of the Metropolis Suite? How much of it is Janelle, and how much of it is Cyndi?
Before the release of the album, it is impossible to truly know. But whatever she has been cooking, I can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be the boldest album yet from an already bold artist.
Janelle Monae plays Manchester Academy on Monday 10th September