Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid
HERE is an album…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I have wanted to include in Vinyl Corner for a while now. I am making changes to the feature going forward – first, I am not putting ‘Vinyl Corner’ in italics -, and I am broadening the scope of albums included. The ArchAndroid or, to give it its full title, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), is the debut album from the sublime Janelle Monáe. Arriving on 18th May, 2010, it started this decade off with an almighty bang! Recently, I wrote a feature about my favourite song of this decade: Robyn’s Dancing on My Own. That songs came out in 2010, but I completely forgot that Tightrope was released in the same year. It is the standout from Monáe’s debut; an album that contains more than its fair share of absolute tunes and classics! Even though there are other writers and producers in the mix, Monáe did not let others guide her voice. The fact she has a creative say and writes/produce throughout means The ArchAndroid is an album that is personal and strong. I think The ArchAndroid would be a weaker and less focused album if Monáe was singing other people’s tracks. As it is, Monáe guides this fantastic record; the second and third parts of her Metropolis concert series. The ArchAndroid, as the title suggests, centres around an all-conquering android, and wastes very little time in getting under the skin. Some have drawn comparisons to Prince, David Bowie and Michael Jackson when you listen to The ArchAndroid.
It is true those influences were in her mind, but it is a disservice to Monáe to say that other people’s fingerprints are more emphatic than her on. Guided by these great artists, Monáe proved herself to be one of the most captivating and compelling artists back in 2010 – she remains so to this very day. One of the strengths of The ArchAndroid is that we do not have a simple series of songs that are traditional and routine. This figure of the android represents the minority; the mediator between the minority and the majority; this heroine that is here to break the chains. It is a very powerful image, and I love that Monáe invented this powerful heroine, and gave herself license and great freedom regarding the songs. If she was just writing about love or copying her peers, maybe that would have been too restrictive and formulaic – would she have been able to spread her wings and truly hit her stride?! Monáe recorded the album during a very transformative and changing period for her. Although the album is pretty pricey on vinyl, I think it is worth the expense, as The ArchAndroid hops genres, mixes styles and conveys a range of emotions. Monáe is cool and sleek; she is demurer at some moments but, in every track, she is in command and hugely inventive.
In terms of musical influences, she not only splices genres, but there are elements of various different nations – Monáe incorporated elements of various places she toured in and, as a result, I think the album speaks and connects with more people than it would have had she been a little less itinerant. I was writing a feature the other day, where I was thinking about modern music and asking whether artists inject enough from the world of film. There is so much to love about film music/scores and soundtracks. I do think that the sonic world of cinema is not utilised enough by artists today. One reason why The ArchAndroid sounds so busy and widescreen, is because Monáe was inspired by film scores and soundtracks. It is hard to pin down and categorise The ArchAndroid, because it employs some Hip-Hop and Neo-Soul; there is Pop and Funk and little bits of everything. Such a busy album could have come across as overly-ambitious or muddled in the hands of other artists. Monáe sounds totally inflamed, committed and assured at every step. I remember hearing bits of The ArchAndroid in 20102 and, after nearly a decade, it still sounds so wild and unpredictable. There are songs that hang together like a suite and others that strut their stuff. You do not need to be a fan of a particular genre or time period to enjoy The ArchAndroid.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
It is not surprising realising The ArchAndroid won huge respect and celebration from critics. It was a revelation back in 2010 and brought to many people’s attention this new and thrilling artist. Here is AllMusic’s take on one of the best albums of this decade:
“The packaging alone -- the elaborate crown, the inspiration listed beside each song, etc. -- provides much to process. Liner notes from the vice-chancellor of the arts asylum at the Palace of the Dogs, Monáe’s residence, outline the (possible) situation fleshed out in the songs. In short, Monáe was genoraped in the 28th century, sent back to the 21st century, and had her organic compounds cloned and re-purposed for the existence of ArchAndroid Cindi Mayweather, whose directive is to liberate Metropolis from a secret society of oppressors. Understanding all this stuff enhances the enjoyment of the album, but it is not required. A few tracks merely push the album along, and a gaudy Of Montreal collaboration is disruptive, but there are numerous highlights that are vastly dissimilar from one another. “Tightrope,” the biggest standout, is funky soul, all locomotive percussion and lyrical prancing to match: “I tip on alligators, and little rattlesnakers/But I’m another flavor, something like a Terminator.” Just beneath that is the burbling synth pop of “Wondaland,” as playful and rhythmically juicy as Tom Tom Club (“So inspired, you touch my wires”); the haunted space-folk of “57821” (titled after Monáe’s patient number); and the conjoined “Faster” and “Locked Inside,” packing bristling energy with a new-wave bounce that morphs into a churning type of desperation worthy of Michael Jackson. Monáe might not have much appeal beyond musical theater geeks, sci-fi nerds, and those who like their genres crossed-up, but no one can deny that very few are on her creative level. She can sing, sang, and scream like hell, too”.
It is hard to hone to one aspect when explaining why The ArchAndroid is such a timeless and phenomenal album. I would say it is Monáe’s flexibility and adaptable nature. Whether it is the vocals, composition or the lyrics, she keeps things twisting, mobile and moving. It is head-spinning listening to an album like The ArchAndroid. The A.V. Club alluded to this when they reviewed Janelle Monáe’s debut:
“But Janelle Monáe truly earns the tag on The ArchAndroid (Suites II And III). Her sophomore album bounds among tracks that stray far outside the boundaries of her loose “soul” designation, and frequently strain at the basic conventions of pop music itself. Monáe’s chameleonic nature extends to every aspect of her performance, including her ever-changing vocals, which swing from Beyoncé-like diva strut on “Cold War” to punk-rock-cabaret snarl on “Come Alive” to pastoral, madrigal-esque balladry on “57821.”
But what sounds like a shambling mess in description is in practice frequently exhilarating, and always intriguing. Granted, Monáe’s vacillations occasionally create some jarring moments, such as a grating/beguiling interlude in which all the vocals are played in reverse (“Neon Gumbo”) following the album’s most radio-ready single (“Tightrope,” featuring Big Boi). However, such fluctuations are usually justified by the album’s loose concept, which continues the saga of Monáe’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, first explored on her 2007 debut EP, Metropolis. But really, Monáe’s inexhaustible swagger and singular style sell both the high-concept theatrics and the schizophrenic sonics.
Janelle Monáe followed up The ArchAndroid with The Electric Lady in 2013. That was another big record and won her a lot of new fans. Dirty Computer came out last year and, like its predecessors, it was a solid and hugely memorable set of songs. Although Monáe has not dropped a step and all three of her albums have received overwhelming positivity, I think her debut is her best album. The ArchAndroid is one of those albums that blows your mind when you first listen and remains as stunning years down the tracks. I have heard tracks from the album since its release and they never seem to grow old or familiar. I think there have been few stronger albums this decade than The ArchAndroid. I would encourage people to get the album on vinyl, because I think it is one of these recordings that people will be talking about decades from now. If you have not heard it – or cannot afford the vinyl -, stream the album (I have included it at the bottom of this feature) and discover why it is such a revered and inspiring work. It makes me wonder why other artists do not follow Janelle Monáe when it comes to concept and scope. Maybe they feel they’d fail or be unable to hit the same peak as her. On one of The ArchAndroid’s biggest tunes, Monáe mentions a tightrope. On that tightrope, and through every golden moment of The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe…
IN THIS PHOTO: Janelle Monáe in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: Janelle Monáe/Getty Images
WALKED with supreme confidence!