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.