When music historians look back on the first decade of the 21st century, they'll no doubt highlight the dazzling array of pop musicians daring to innovate. Those producing music which both reinvents and creates, challenging conventions and spinning concepts and long-term constructions around their work.
Except, of course, they won't. Pop has been sadly lacking of late, with depressingly little in the way of originality and edge. Lady GaGa won her plaudits, but her skills are revealed as style over substance upon the arrival of Janelle Monáe.
With one overblown and hyperambitious debut Monáe has invigorated pop music, issuing the kind of challenge Prince, Madonna, Grace Jones, Bowie and other greats once aimed at a turgid music industry. The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III, to give it its full title) is a bold and thrilling record.
It opens with orchestral flourishes and film score-esque overtures, setting the tone for more than an hour of experimental pop, hip-hop, jazz, rock, electro, funk and classical. Many acts claim the overused 'eclectic' as their badge of pride, but Monáe is too busy sampling (Saul Williams crops up on "Dance or Die"), caterwauling ("Come Alive (The War of the Roses)"), warbling ethereally ("Sir Greendown") and collaborating (indie stars Of Montreal guest on "Make The Bus") to care.
Songs segue together effortlessly. "Faster" boasts an Outkast-inspired funk guitar line and a Daft Punk-styled guitar solo stretching into the stratosphere. "Cold War" is almost a full-blown rock song, complete with robotic backing vocals and synths supporting Monáe's incredible voice.
Conceptually based on Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis, the songs tell a story of goddess-like androids and their home city and the people inhabiting it. The folky "Oh, Maker" borrows lyrics and backing vocals from Simon & Garfunkel and is followed up by the fuzz-laden "Come Alive" with its fantastically eerie bassline and mesmerising vocal performance. Monáe's vocal tics and genre-spanning range allow her to walk all over tracks like this seemingly effortlessly, resulting in songs that tug at something inside you, while remaining firmly in your head for weeks.
The evidence of Big Boi's production work here is clear as tracks echo the ambitious and experimental work of Outkast's Stankonia. Also sprinkled throughout are links to Erykah Badu, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, as well as soul icons and big band performers. Don't confuse Monáe for a copycat, however. This is unlike anything else released this decade.
If a criticism had to be found for The ArchAndroid, it would be its length. Even fans of experimental pop begin to tire after the hour mark, and with the final two tracks clocking in at 6 and 8 minutes respectively, it can be a challenge to complete in one sitting. This is a record not intended for casual consumption, however. Think of the album as a soundtrack or dreamscape and you'll be somewhere closer to its range. Give it the attention it deserves and you'll find it captivating.
When the pop historians write up 2010, there's no question Monáe's name will figure. We can only hope for future generations' sake her efforts will inspire other (more frequently hyped) artists to raise their game and subvert an often tired genre in the way that she undeniably has with The ArchAndroid.
9.5 / 10
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