By Dumisa Lengwati
What first makes you take notice of her is her funky pompadour and her trademark tailored but feminine suits. Next, you take in her funky two-tone shoes, her innocent Kansas looks, and you decide that an artist with such a diverse and eclectic look is sure to have interesting-sounding music. And you haven’t even heard Janelle Monáe’s first note.
Welcome to the year 2719, and take a journey into android 57821 Cindy Mayweather’s world of Metropolis, a hybrid city running over with soulful, funky, retro and punky sounds, and everything else you can imagine inbetween.
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) is a continuation of Monáe’s 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I, where the messianic character of Mayweather was introduced. In The ArchAndroid, Monáe takes the listener into an ethereal world of wonder, mystery, love, and self-discovery. The opening track, Suite II Overture, provides a cinematic score summary of what’s to come, and brings to mind the futuristic look that was so synonymous with the ’20s. Think of the Batman movies of the ’90s, the ultra-modern city of Oz in The Wiz (musical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson), and Bicentennial Man, and you’re almost there.
The first 11 tracks of Suite I segue easily into each other, and the smooth rhymes of collaborators Saul Williams on Dance or Die and Outkast legend Big Boi on the leading single of the album, Tightrope, catch the ear. Monáe easily displays her extensive and powerful vocal range with her eloquent rapping and power ballad belting on both tracks respectively. She also can boast the versatility of a lounge singer on Sir Greendown, and playful robotic narrative on the sultry, slow and sensual Sunday morning track, Mushrooms and Roses, easily the best track of the album, with the easy essence of Prince at his prime.
Suite II is a bit on the haphazard side, with a heady mix of folk on 57821 (collaboration with Deep Cotton), Mika-esque bubblegum pop on Make the Bus (another collaboration with of Montreal ), and the Lauryn Hill-inspired jazzy feel of Neon Valley Street.
Monáe’s lyrics easily allow the listener into the make-believe world she creates, much like that of her fictional Kansas counterpart, Dorothy. You are enveloped as you recognise her many influences from both music and movies, and realise the ease with which the multilayered experience could become a musical.
Not only is her voice exciting to listen to, but her James Brown antics in performance (like the music video for Tightrope) and innovative dance moves provide an all-round entertaining ride. Whether Monáe can ensure that her unique style, powerful delivery and interesting concepts can last a life-long career has yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure: her first studio effort packs a punch, and the long, hard and arduous work shines through.
Throw yourself wholeheartedly into the tiny might powerhouse that is Janelle Monáe, and fall in love with what can be called one of the most diverse, accomplished and well-waited for albums of 2010.