There is something to be said for an original idea in today’s realm of pop music, especially since there aren’t many. While Katy Perry roars with ho-hum predictability and Miley Cyrus proves the pop-without-substance factor still works, Janelle Monae drops Electric Lady, her sophomore full-length follow-up to her phenomenal The ArchAndroid and flips the genre into her own instead of being consumed by the machine of it all. And that says something for the alt-popster who went on to become a Cover Girl, performed on Dancing with the Stars and struck a bona fide megahit with fun. on “We Are Young.”
So while poised for mainstream superstardom, Janelle Monae doesn’t sell her soul in Electric Lady. Instead, she takes us further into her utopian journey mixing her android alter ego Cindy Mayweather with some heartfelt human emotion peppered in. With help from big names like Prince and Miguel, Monae delivers a healthy follow-up despite leaving marks of confusion along the way.
The collaborations are where Monae strikes the strongest and in her troika of openers, Prince, Solange and Erykah Badu all help Monae lead into her epic saga. “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” feels like a passing of the torch from Prince to an apt heir of thoughtful funk in a song that sounds ideal in each of their universes. Monae straddles her egos by declaring her goal with the confidence of a veteran. Right away, we know her affect has not been deterred. More lovely is Prince’s mark on the song is asserted but he leaves the shine for Monae. Class act.
She plays the radio hit game with signature flare on “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Badu and harkens to some En Vogue territory in the title track with Solange. These are solid tracks and open Lady with heft. After the silly DJ Crash Crash skit (there are three total (groan)), the duets continue with Monae and Miguel crooning their way through the lovely “Primetime.” Whether as android or human, Monae’s emotion is devout but never weak. Closer to the end, Esperanza Spalding assists in the sultry “Dorothy Dandridge,” this generation’s answer to “Bette Davis Eyes.”
But can Monae hold her own on her own? By now, this was the question. Monae is a fascinating subject to listen to but when she deals out unforgettable tunes, it’s almost cringe-inducing. “Dance Apocalytpic” relied on bippity-bop beats and cheerleader lyrics but ultimately did nothing to push the album forward. “It’s Code,” “Victory” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” run their course before running down the drain with nary a memorable lyric or melody.
And yet, she serves major fierceness on “We Were Rock and Roll” and “Ghetto Woman” which pays homage to her mother. This dichotomy of great and average makes Electric Lady uneven and bumpy.
Paired with “Dorothy Dandridge,” Monae does know how to close the album with the final track “What An Experience.” She doesn’t finish the album with an explosive track, but instead this mid-tempo anthem that swells with triumph. The song feels like her extension of “We Are Young,” but more importantly, it fades out with an air of anticipation. Electric Lady is a mixed gem that is at times glorious, at other times a little short, but before we can even settle into Monae’s newest album, she already leaves us wanting more by the end.