Through all the retro guitar-twanging and futuristic robotics, there’s one question that persists throughout The Electric Lady: Who is Janelle Monae? It’s been the golden question since her debut, The ArchAndroid. In The Electric Lady, the tunes are looser and more self-indulgent. It’s an endlessly danceable collection of music, one that invites you to into her bizarre, funk-and-soul-flavoured world, and allows you to approach Monae for yourself.
In one sense, it’s obvious who Monae is: The Electric Lady wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s unapologetically nostalgic, seemingly lost in analogue, blending a variety of black popular music from the twentieth century. Through high-powered soul anthems such as ‘Victory’ and ‘Primetime’, Monae sings of love and loss, of success and failure. Her music is about her: her motivation, her self-confidence, her passions, and fighting for a place in the world for her ‘weird’ and ‘freaky’ attitude.
It’s a far cry from 2013’s conception of cool. Rather than laid back and minimal, Monae opts for intricate layering, buzzing with detail, and bursting with passion. It would be easy to dismiss it as a messily arranged, badly mixed throwback – and admittedly, these are its flaws – but that would be to ignore how interestingly it’s packaged up.
Electric Lady is more than a scattered collection of funky romps and 7”s; it’s styled as a seamless radio playlist that glides from track to track, with interludes from DJ Crash Crash, ‘your favourite robotic, hypnotic, psychotic DJ’. The year is 2719, Monae is in fact, Cindi Mayweather, Android Alpha platinum 9000, leading the Android rights movement. Those deeply personal lyrics weren’t Monae’s at all – but Cindi’s, relayed second hand by a DJ on underground radio.
What’s also telling is that in 2719, we’re still nostalgic for the sixties and seventies, for groovy funk and the civil rights movement. You can’t ignore race in an album as musically black as The Electric Lady. Indeed, it’s the tracks which are explicit about race that are the most dazzling, such as ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ or ‘Ghetto Woman’.
The result is something that touches on electrifying (pun intentional). Who is Janelle Monae? She’s an individual who aims to inspire, and speak for many. Whilst at times a little over-detailed, The Electric Lady is a truly heartfelt album, and one that pulls the personal and political together with passion and irresistible grooves.By Beth Curtis