Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid

Wonderland · Atlantic · Bad Boy | discogs.com
A one-woman show of cyberpunk futurism. Performance art at its finest.
· · ·

In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, The ArchAndroid was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Bulb for Brightest Idea
· · ·

The hubbub of a hundred hushed conversations dies down. A gentle buzz from the pit — the orchestra is tuning itself. A ripple of polite applause from the audience. These first moments of The ArchAndroid declare loud and clear that the maestro has arrived: glassy-eyed, glossy-lipped and forever distant.

She holds the baton, she mans the lights, she draws back her own deep crimson velvet curtains to show you precisely what she likes and not an inch more. She has written for herself, directed for herself, and now she sings — for herself. This is the artifice of The ArchAndroid. Your mind is her stage and you are her audience.

A dramatic overture cascades forth. An amuse-bouche for the opera that is to come. A closing fanfare. And then all your expectations are unceremoniously defenestrated. The ArchAndroid immediately launches into crisp, taunt funk which gradually shifts gears into softer sixties soul, takes a detour into grungy nineties punk, all the while maintaining a loose jazzy sensibility, flirts with pastoral Elizabethan lute balladry, interpolates Débussy's most famous composition, and finally draws to a close with a majestic juggernaut of a tango.

This is not the tentative genre-hopping of some noncommittal debutant. This is deliberate artistic choice, wielded with masterful precision.

And this is all to say nothing of the plot.

Monáe casts herself as the lead in this sweeping sci-fi epic: an android messiah torn between function and desire. She must obey her programming and free her bionic brethren from their oppressive human overlords, and she must also follow her heart (coolant pump?) and be with the human with whom she has disgracefully and illegally fallen in love.

The story continues from prequel EP Metropolis, directly inspired by Fritz Lang's groundbreaking 1927 film of the same title, considered a seminal work in the history of science fiction and of cinema. Each tells of a shining futuristic city, a utopia of peace and prosperity that utterly ignores, and yet is wholly supported by a downtrodden underclass. (Lang's savior figure, a mysterious and terrifying golden creature of metal and wire, would later serve as inspiration to those who designed C-3PO)

The saga of the star-crossed lovers would be continued in sequel album The Electric Lady, an altogether tighter and leaner affair, studded with stars that shine almost as brightly as Monáe: Solange, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel, Erykah Badu and even Prince himself. Though better by every conceivable measure, it lacks that je ne sais quoi, and does not match the imagination, the grandeur, the originality of the first. This is not to cast aspersions. The Electric Lady is The Empire Strikes Back, but The ArchAndroid is A New Hope.

The sheer single-minded ambition Monáe pours into her work more than makes up for the minor hairline fractures in the towering façade of The ArchAndroid. The conspicuously awkward choreography of the Battle of Yavin cannot erase the trailblazing filmography of the century's greatest science fiction film (set to what many, myself included, consider the greatest film soundtrack ever), and similarly, nobody could mind The ArchAndroid's slightly saggy second act. Few are writing actual albums among the preponderance of vehicles for singles, let alone concept albums, let alone concepts of this magnitude.

Janelle Monáe gazes past you imperiously, uncomprehendingly, barely aware of your incursion into the glorious citadel of her mind.

Do not allow yourself to be misled. This is not for you. This is for her.