It's encouraging that after releasing one of the best records of 2010, Janelle Monáe wasn't rushed into releasing the follow-up album to The ArchAndroid until she was good and ready. Three years have given her and her Wondaland Arts Society time to regroup and evolve and the range and talent of her collaborators this time around reflect the maturity Monáe's sound has reached.
Prince makes an early guest appearance in the slow and slinky "Givin Em What They Love", with the Purple One setting the tone for the following hour of music. Erykah Badu is another early guest, adding sass and verses to "Q.U.E.E.N" as Monáe refutes her critics and repeats the "am I a freak?" wonderings from 2010's "Faster", bringing us back to the discography-spanning theme of oppressed androids and futuristic Metropolis-inspired cityscapes.
The title track ("Electric Lady") swaggers along with an easy R&B vibe that sees Monáe now comfortable exploring chart music territory while simultaneously throwing in afrofuturism ("my spaceship leaves at ten") and lengthy running times (five minutes here).
There are more skits and "interludes" this time around, fleshing out the story of Monáe's alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. These can be a little cutesy and kitsch for some, but they also serve to keep the concept flowing and remind listeners that something more than just the album title links this collection of songs. It's perhaps simplistic to link Monáe's concepts of repressed "androids" rising up to overthrow their oppressors with stories of black emancipation, but there are angles all the same and it keeps things focused on the meaning and message beyond the smooth production and beats.
"Primetime" features the vocal talents of Miguel and is a slow jam that could grace teen movies the land over, but also has a shredding guitar solo and smart instrumentation. "We Were Rock & Roll" is another standout, showing the expertly-produced backing vocals and live instrumentation backing Monáe's one-woman show.
"Dance Apocalyptic" deserves special mention for its absolutely infectious bubblegum pop rhythm, 50s style backing vocals and ukulele-driven melody. Again, Monáe keeps things ever so slightly weird, closing out a potentially chartbusting pop track with a vocoded android voice asking "What's the matter? Does your chicken taste like pork?".
As with The ArchAndroid, the record tends to place the more obvious crowd pleasing singles up front, leaving the second half (of nineteen tracks) to simmer a little with ballads ("Look Into My Eyes"), instrumentals and midtempo soul numbers ("It's Code", "Ghetto Woman"). Things do have tendency to taper off a little at this point, with "Victory" a little dull despite a fairly incredible vocal range performance by Monáe.
Things drift by ambiently – never badly, just perhaps as slightly more "background" than Monáe might like - until the final two songs, with "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes" and "What An Experience" closing things out with smooth soul and almost Whitney Houston meets Graceland world/pop stylings.
As with all Monáe's efforts, The Electric Lady is a long and meandering journey, making its points with intent and deliberate care, rather than throwing out a bunch of sure-fire pop hits and hoping people will stick around for the less radio-friendly deep cuts. Monáe's storytelling and creative efforts here are huge and even if, like Sgt. Pepper's, the concept album schtick doesn't always inform every aspect of the record, it's a strong factor in the success of the album.
Musically it's flawless: everything is smooth and polished without sounding overly produced, and instrumentation is diverse and rewarding. As a vocalist and performer Monáe is infectious: her vocal tics and asides are exciting and adorable. The length could be perceived as self-indulgent or lazy editing, but when viewed as a movie-length experience intended to be played out in one sitting, it begins to make more sense. If you have the patience, it's worth the watch. If you don't, stick with the singles and you'll still be richly rewarded. Go deep and this will stay with you for a while.
8.7 / 10
Looking for the SPB logo? You can download it in a range of styles and colours here:
Click anywhere outside this dialog to close it, or press escape.