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Review: Janelle Monae Mining The Past While Staying In The Here & Now

During one of the recurring radio call in shows from the future skits that populate The Electric Lady, a caller proposes to the DJ that Cindy Mayweather (the fictional heroine of the album) is the same person as the Archandroid (hero of Monae’s last album). Upon hearing this, the DJ cuts the caller off and tells the listeners he won’t stand for that kind of crackpot nonsense. The point here is obvious, this is still Janelle Monae, but for those hoping for a direct sequel to The Archandroid, they can go ahead and keep hoping.

When Monae released her first full album in 2010, her weird fusion of rock, funk, and r&b was a wonderfully bizarre outlier. Flash to 2013, where r&b has taken a sharp left turn towards the weird and experimental. Rather than distancing herself from the current air of the genre, Monae fully embraces the r&b roots of her music, and The Electric Lady is all the better for it. Featuring appearance from young r&b innovators (Solange Knowles, Miguel), as well as vanguards of the genre (Prince, Erykah Badu), Electric Lady is a celebration of r&b’s expanding boundaries.

Much like her previous effort, Electric Lady is broken up into distinctive suites. Suite IV makes up the first half, and is largely devoted to the future r&b she and her contemporaries have pushed into the mainstream. “Q.U.E.E.N” features an airtight guitar riff around which Monae builds one of the years more distinctive club jams. On “Prime Time,” Monae duets with Miguel on a smooth between-the-sheets slow jam that would have been a stand out on Miguel’s chock-full-of-standouts Kaleidoscope Dream, but fits perfectly on Electric Lady as well.

Closing out suite IV is “Dance Apocalyptic,” the poppiest track on the album, and easiest analog for Archandroid centerpiece “Tightrope.”  Suite V consists of more traditional soul/r&b, with tracks like “Ghetto Woman” and “Victory” acting as deliberate throwbacks to classic Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker. Far from the cheap nostalgia this often results in, Monae puts enough of her personality and song writing ingenuity on these songs to leave no doubt that they came out in 2013. She’s mining the past for inspiration, while staying definitely in the here and now.

Electric Lady is not a perfect album, the last few tracks are moderately underwhelming, and the grand concept of the record never really materializes beyond a few somewhat amusing interludes. However, these are small issues on what is a wonderfully assured and entertaining sophomore effort. With Archandroid, Monae was seen as the future of r&b. While the genre may have caught up to her in the best of ways, make no mistake that Monae is still a hugely important talent, and with Electric Lady she only adds to her growing legacy.

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