Janelle Monae

The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III)

We long for salvation. Burly refuseniks may argue otherwise but even their dismissals of dominant hegemonies are more often than not a case of the emperor meets new clothes. From images of bearded men on crosses to the plastic allure of unfettered capitalism, each of us seeks salvation in some form or another and, for some, it comes in the shape of a three-letter word: Pop.

Trouble is, real pop stars – the pupil dilating, pulse quickening, larger than life prophets and guardians of a gateway into a bigger, better, brighter world – are almost impossible to find. Instead, we’re left to contend with focus group facsimiles named Florence, Ke$ha, Cheryl and Pixie. Even the unstoppable GaGa monster began life in a dish marked Christina A. before growing strong enough to break out of her perspex confines with a nugget of Madonna’s will to power and a battered VHS of Paris is Burning – the legendary late ’80s documentary of the New York City Tranny balls, itself the inspiration for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ – clutched tightly in each claw.

What’s a pop fan in search of redemptive star power to do? They’ve been left to wander through desolate streets in search of a fix, taunted by the fleeting shadows made by Cowell’s karaoke army and its numerous castaways. Death by crowd sourcing is starting to feel like reality instead of a hackneyed phrase concocted by an underpaid music critic.

Something quiffed this way comes, though, and she goes by the name of Janelle Monae. Type her name into YouTube and up pops the image of a 24 year-old African American woman sporting a Marge Simpson meets early James Brown quiff. Combined with a black tuxedo, it makes for a striking look, especially in contrast to a mainstream littered with Rihannas dressing like extras from Buck Rogers: the S&M years. Le real freak c’est chaste, apparently.

Image ticked, Monae backs up the drag king attire with The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III), her ambitious debut LP. Made up of 18 songs divided into a two-part suite, The ArchAndroid continues the tale of Monae’s future dwelling android alterego, Cindy Mayweather. Having escaped the Wolfmaster rulers of Metropolis (a reference to Fritz Lang’s dystopia classic) on Monae’s 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase), Mayweather has now achieved messianic status as a figurehead for rebellion.

Messianic android alter ego? Er, ticked. As mythologies go, Moane’s slots in neatly above the cod id of Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce while staying clear of Sun Ra’s intergalactic heights in the great hierarchy of pop oddness. Accessibility is clearly a concern on The ArchAndroid and Monae achieves it by firmly straddling her sci-fi evangelism with a supernova like display of talent and a giddy round of genre hopping. The Saul Williams guesting ‘Dance or Die’ cranks up Fela Kuti influenced afro-pop. ‘Sir Greendown’ taps into Martin Denny style exotica. ‘Cold War’ repays Monae’s debt to early supporter’s Outkast. The former drama student then invents Disney-hop on ‘Oh Maker’ before shifting gears with ‘Tightrope.’

An explosive twist on 60s style soul, ‘Tightrope’ is a slice of transcendence as pop song. A rare, electric moment when singer, song and image combine into a unified whole, blowing away all preconceptions and searing itself into the grey matter as Monae makes like an xx James Brown, effortlessly side stepping the shallow trough carved out by last decade’s pastiche soul brigade with little more than a gleaming smile and a one-footed shuffle. The presence of the Godfather looms large and it’s a debt Monae recently acknowledged on national US television when she finished a career defining performance of ‘Tightrope’ with a few lines from ‘Sex Machine.’

It’s a mighty peak and one that unfortunately makes everything that follows feel like a denouement; one filed with the Funkadelic-inspired psyche ‘Mushrooms & Roses’, ‘57821’s vintage film soundtrack inspired balladering and the outright fumble of the Kevin Barnes featuring ‘Make the Bus.’

Is The ArchAndroid too sprawling for its own good, then? Absolutely. But brilliant pop is occasionally messy. Whether toying with fascist imagery in the wake of a glam hangover or changing your name to a pointy symbol and then back again, the mightiest pop stars never backed away from a potentially gauche idea. Monae embraces her fair share on The ArchAndroid and unlike the majority of her peers, she’s not afraid to explore them under the hot glare of the mainstream spotlight, even if they sometimes fizzle instead of pop. Welcome to pop salvation 3.0: bold, ambitious and now with a complimentary jar of brylcreem.

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