Review ·

Before we talk about Monáe, let's first talk about Fritz Lang's Metropolis. If you haven't seen the film, go see it. Residents of or around New York City reading this article in mid-May 2010 have no reason not to see it: Film Forum is screening the most "complete" version since the film's premier in 1927. The film was heavily edited down after its initial screening, so most copies in existence are significantly shorter; the latest print is based off footage recently discovered in Argentina. (Everyone else can still view the entire film here, and English translations of the original German title cards are here.)

 

Though it was widely maligned upon its release, it has become one of those "must-see" films. Whether you're a film buff (vagina dentata, anyone?) or simply a Patrick/Patricia/Pat Q. Public who loves pop, Fritz Lang's dystopic vision of the future has received constant callbacks. Artists ranging from auteurs (Ridley Scott, with Blade Runner) to pop stars (Madonna and David Fincher, with the video for "Express Yourself") have used the film as a visual point of reference. It also remains an excellent time capsule. There are proto-Fascist politics, Freudian and Kantian theories of the mind, and Marxist class struggles (minus the whole conflict thing), all set in a future ripped from the pages of an art deco Ikea catalog and set to a lush, Strauss-ian score.

 

The story alone is epic. On the surface, the film is simply about boy meeting girl. Yet subplot stacks upon subplot: The boy's dad is a megalomaniac; the boy's megalomaniac dad has a mad scientist for an embittered rival; the two men are in love with the same dead woman; the dead woman appears to have been reincarnated as a Madonna-Messiah (i.e., "the girl") who is inciting the working class masses; the working class masses are working their working class asses off and getting blown up by gigantic vaginal machines; those vaginal machines have teeth; vaginas eat men; vaginaVaginaVAGINA; and so much more. Sci-fi godfather H.G. Wells hated it. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels loved it. And the film totally works today: The visuals remain stunning and fantastic, and the story plods and feels overly complicated. And who said Hollywood doesn't know its history?

Now, what does any of this have to do with Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV)?

In truth, very little. And this is precisely the point. Singer-songwriter Monáe joins a lineage of artists who take visual cues and little else from Lang's masterpiece. Not to say this is a good or bad thing. Respect needn't manifest itself as blind reverence or name-checking references. Nor is this saying Monáe's album is a flop. In fact, the album is remarkably clean. It's just misrepresented. The album doesn't need such an elaborate backstory: "Like a daring epic film, the album concern [sic] a cybergirl's struggle to love in the futuristic city of Metropolis." Huh?

 

The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV) is less of a grand homage to a specific cinematic work than it is simply an excellent collaboration between Monáe and her production partners, Charles "Chuck Lightning" Joseph II and Nathaniel "Nate 'Rocket' Wonder'" Irvin III. The team wrote and produced the vast majority of the record, except for four tracks: the two overtures and closing "BabopbyeYa" were helmed by Roman GianArthur Irvin, and Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes added the very Of Montreal-bounce to "Make The Bus." The "Wondaland" trio's youthful zeal and musical curiosity shines brightly in its kaleidoscopic music. The guest list alone hints at the breadth of the trio's interests: the cerebral-passionate fusion of Saul Williams, the gangsta lean of Big Boi and the quirky bounce of Of Montreal. In spite of the album's potential obesity at 18 tracks of wildly different musical ideas, the three keep the weight off by welcoming coherence and by evenly spreading out their interests.

As expected, the songs have a more polished sheen than Monáe's debut EP from 2007, Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase. The lead single, "Cold War," was appropriately chosen as an early leak, as it replaced the memory of "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" with big hooks, bigger smiles ("All the tribes come and the mighty will crumble/ We must brave this night") and a sugar-fueled beat. The rest of the record follows this style by blending frenetic optimism with eclectic crate-digging pop of Pizzicato 5. "Locked Inside" jacks the opening break from "Rock With You" and re-envisions Quincy-era MJ as swinging contempo girl-pop. And with a quick turn of the heel, the King of Pop transforms into Holly Golightly crooning Mancini by the window on "Sir Greendown." All the while Monáe does the James Brown and exudes I'm-already-ready-for-my-close-up appeal.

Much of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV)'s appeal centers on Monáe's embrace of the Everyperson idea of an artist: part id ("You know, it's, like, art... man..."); and part ego ("You know, the sort of art that I would like"). All of her talk about androids is appropriate because she takes the loosey-goosey perception of art and literally fuses the organizing structure of machinery. On top of that, the language of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV) owes more to Broadway than to Hollywood. A former student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (alumni include many television and stage actors, but bigger names are Tyne Daly and Gretchen Mol) who once considered a career in musical theater, Monáe still channels that distinctly Broadway-ian ability to generalize complex ideas into mass-appeal nuggets.

 

If you need to clump her somewhere, call her "Afro-punk for the Rent generation." When she sings, she is not just half-human and half-robot, she is also half Hair hippie and half Fame role model. When she's in touch with her inner goddess, she swoons, "I hear the colors in the flowers," on the otherwise conventional R&B/Pop confection "Oh, Maker." When it's just one of those days, she emotes on behalf of angst/acne-ridden teens on "Faster," "Am I a freak, or just another weirdo.../ You can call me your hero." Monáe's main difference is that she recognizes the limited market exposure of theater. It's one thing to spend almost a hundred dollars to watch twentysomethings scowling "Blah blah/ Blah-blah blah blah blah blah" in choreographed unison. It's another to get down in a club and have someone throw that flipcam footage up on YouTube.

The great accomplishment of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV) is that it succeeds in spite of not being what it claims to be. It does not have any connection to Lang's Metropolis beyond borrowing a look for a cover and the non-specific ideas of androids and relationships. The album is "based" on the movie in the same way that Hollywood "bases" so many of its films on true stories. In fact, the Metropolis relationship only draws more attention to the fact that the most unsuccessful or problematic art can have so many virtues. Meanwhile, Monáe has crafted an album that freely borrows ideas without adding much to the process.

 

In this sense, the album is not rooted in Afro-beat, funk or rhythm 'n' blues because it does not actually deal with the blues in any specific way. Instead, it seems more interested in the widely consumable potential for the blues. It borrows stylistic elements from each music style but never deals with the stankonia involved. If it got that dirty, then the album would have a more substantial connection to James Brown beyond his pompadour and footwork. In other words, Monáe is more interested in the (happy) end versus the means. As on the thrashing "Come Alive (The War of the Roses)," the shreddy solos and shrieking vocal gymnastic workouts are executed with perfect-10 precision. The entire record is similarly organized and pleasing to the ear and eye. That is to say, for those about to rock Monáe, you know who you are.

 

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bad review to be honest, you took things outta context in this one.

Greg

From this review, it sounds like you wanted the album to sound like some bluesy, downtrodden dystopic homage to Fritz Lang. I can say with complete certainty had the album actually turned out like that, it would have sounded like a pretentious sack of s%#t. You know, kind of like what I just finished reading.

Kelly

This is the most overwrought, idiotic review I've ever read. You spend the first three paragraphs blathering on about a movie that is completely superfluous to one's appreciation of this album as artwork. The rest of the review is full of baffling, stop-smoking-so-much-pot non-sequiturs like "she takes the loosey-goosey perception of art and literally fuses the organizing structure of machinery." What the hell are you talking about? Have you completely forgotten what it means to enjoy an album?

Equally damning is your complete obliviousness to the innovative and inspiring ways this album transcends genres, experiments with the alchemical mixture of sounds, and ends up with something greater than the sum of all of its multifarious parts. Instead, you come up with what is possibly the worst blurb-ready groaner I've ever heard - "Afro-Punk for the Rent generation."

Really? Were you proud of yourself when you spewed this dreck out on your keyboard? I hope Prefix is seriously reconsidering your employment after this one.

Devin

Good grief this is horrible.

Luis

Thanks for all the comments:

@Greg & Luis, I would've liked to hear both of your reasons why. That said, please see my responses below, in case the other comments resonated with you.

@Kelly, I actually didn't want the album to sound like anything in particular (though I wonder what "a bluesy, downtrodden dystopic homage to Fritz Lang" would sound like). My point was: a) Monae has repeatedly made a connection in her interviews between her album and Lang's film (or just look at the title of her album and its cover art); b) I think that's misleading, especially if you're familiar with the film (which I do endorse); and c) I think her work has roots elsewhere (musical theater, pop, etc.)

@Devin: I respectfully disagree: I think it's helpful to first consider the movie that she frequently cites for the reason mentioned above.

Regarding the "loosey-goosey" sentence, I agree, that wasn't very clear. Here's another way to put it: Monae presents herself as clever and instinctive, but her music is actually very structured and deliberate in her process. Hopefully that is clearer!

Re: the sum being greater than its parts, I agree that it's helpful to not get bogged down in the specific genres she borrows. If I had done that, I could have written about the authenticity of her Fela references or something more specific like that. That said, my takeaway is that her style of "transcending genres" (to borrow your words) is reminiscent of recent socially progressive musical theater.

As for your comment about enjoying albums, sure, I still know what it means to me. However, I think it's helpful to dig deeper and talk about what I enjoy or don't enjoy about a certain piece of music.

Lastly, I'll defer to the editors about my future employment. Dave and Brandon, what do you think?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/sintalentos/240dan-nishimoto-2.jpg sintalentos

Dan is still down and with the Prefix.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

First, thank you all very much for your comments. We encourage public comments and feedback from our readers, and we do so because we believe our reviews and articles are conversation starters, not pronouncements. It's always lovely when that holds true, for better or worse.

This review is longer and more circuitous than normal for us, and Dan is asking a lot from those who come to it for a quick bite. But for those who want to place the record in a broader context and to learn something new along the way, this review can be very rewarding. And the fact is, Dan is delving into and parsing connections that Monae herself has made. I'd argue that such a broad discussion is necessary, then, to truly appreciate the "album as artwork," so to speak.

Generally, Dan's ability to look beyond the constructs of the album itself (sounds, cover art) only adds to the listening experience and, to speak personally, my ability to appreciate what I'm hearing. A few (admittedly) muddy sentences does not imperil his standing at Prefix. He has a distinct voice, a wealth of knowledge, impeccable taste and a fresh perspective, and I'm always happy to see his byline on our pages.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/brandon/216_browser_clut.gif brandon

readability of the review aside, i didn't hear anything mind blowing on this album. she sings well but just drawing from different music genres for different songs doesn't make her an innovator. a lot of it is pretty straight-up R&B which bores me as much now as it did in the '90s. tightrope is still cute though.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/longjohn/wing-of-a-roller-smalljpg.jpg longjohn

Longjohn, you either picked up a counterfeit copy of ArchAndroid, or you have no idea what you're listening to. Fair enough if you don't like it or you simply just don't get it (I have a strong feeling it's the latter), but this sounds absolutely nothing like generic 90s R&B. And it isn't strictly R&B either. It contains elements of pop, rock, and jazz. "Faster" makes you wanna do the Charleston dance (and no, I am not THAT old). "Locked Inside" recalls old-school Michael Jackson, who the last I checked was pop, not R&B. Have you listened "Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)"? She channels the spirit of real rock n' roll on that song better than a lot of today's so-called rock bands out put together. "Mushrooms & Roses"? Definitely a track inspired by Hendrix. I dare you not to be moved by the beauty of "Oh Maker". "Make The Bus" is a collaboration with Of Montreal, and it sounds more like a lost Of Montreal song that accidentally made its way onto the album. The closing track "BaBopByeYa" sounds like Lena Horne in an epic musical number from an old-school MGM movie. No, Janelle isn't inventing anything new here, but what makes her original is that she combines her influences in a rather smart fashion to make music that actually doesn't sound like the same crap you've heard a million times on the radio before. Something that not even the highly-praised Lady Gaga can lay claim to. If anything, she's more of a visual artist than she is a musician (I'm not dissing her talents at all, I'm just saying that the fascination with her is more with her image than her music). Whereas Janelle makes an effort to make music that is as interesting as her image. Hell, I just wrote a review that is ten times more coherent and on-point than that slop Dan Nishimoto posted.

Alleged Pecan

While the film serves as a scaffolding for the album, a lot of it takes cues from Afro-Futurism authors like Octavia Butler. The album is epic--minus "Make the Bus." If you aren't listening to the lyrics, if you haven't seen her live, if you've never watched or read an interview with her -- you probably hold the album in lower regard. This album is really tight and pieced together. Yes--it is polished and consciously technical; that is a gripe I still fail to understand. Her brilliance lies in her attention to the details and her desire to perfect her art.

As for the reviewer:
- The article comes off as a desire to box the album in.
- The background on the film is too long and because you critique that before you move to the album, your arguments concerning The ArchAndroid are questionable. I understand your attempt to make parallels between the two, as it is the source of some of her inspiration, but you lose your audience because people want to read about the album -- not your take on the movie.

Dom

this rubbed me the wrong way a little. the album doesn't really come up until nearly halfway into the review, and to my eye, there's greater detail about what the album might have sounded like than what it actually sounds like. if i hadn't encountered the lovely ms. monae's music before reading this, i wonder whether i would have learned anything. whatever. it's got people talking, and that's the point of these things, innit?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/LongestWinter/moonjpg.jpg CraigJenkins

Additional sinuous comment on a sinuous review of a sinuously structured album (which I enjoy thoroughly)...

h0gy

i like it too. a lot.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/LongestWinter/moonjpg.jpg CraigJenkins

Finding I enjoy it more with every listen as well..

h0gy

Seems that the reviewer goes out of his way to sound like an authoritative film reviewer/critic that then somehow morphs into a high brow music reviewer. He really appears to do neither very well.
It's one thing to express an opinion (i.e.: personal tastes) about something. It's quite another to posit one's self as a "reviewer" without actually reviewing, or understanding what one is reviewing in the first place. And the need to ballast her to James Brown as a reference: "All the while Monáe does the James Brown and exudes I'm-already-ready-for-my-close-up" appeal." further illustrates the "reviewers" short commings in fully understanding what Monae has accomplished with "The ArchAndroid".
Trying to sound ubber cool and above it all only diminished the ability to actually listen before you speak - or in this case - "review" an album.
Good luck next time though....

StevieLee

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