12:35 AM EDT, September 9, 2013
3 stars (out of 4)
No one can accuse Janelle Monae of aiming low. "The Electric Lady" (Atlantic) presents Parts 4 and 5 of a multi-release musical story begun on her 2007 EP "Metropolis" and acclaimed 2010 album "The ArchAndroid." The sci-fi narrative traces the journey of Monae’s android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. The cyber-heroine’s exploits – firmly in the futuristic tradition of African-American music from Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic to Cannibal Ox and Monae’s pals in OutKast – are matched by songs that time-travel across genre: soul, funk, jazz, reggae, rock, hip-hop, lounge, even classical. She hasn’t caught up with dub step yet, but give her time. The sequencing slides one song into the next, a continuous flow on which the singer glides like an astute late-night radio DJ making era-spanning connections.
Monae is a flexible vocalist, adept at everything from Motown-inspired balladry ("It’s Code") to rapping (her fiery interludes on "Ghetto Woman" and "Q.U.E.E.N."). The plot, such as it is, gets a bit murky, but it’s not a requirement for enjoying the audacious music. The album is divided into two suites, each introduced by an orchestral overture that suggests a noir-movie soundtrack. In "Givin’ Em What they Love," she goes toe to toe with Prince – an acknowledged inspiration – over a combustible mix of churchy organ, swaggering horns and scalding guitar. "Dance Apocalyptic" surges with girl-group harmonies, new-wave energy and a hint of country – is that a ukulele driving the rhythm?
Not everything soars quite as high. There are slack moments on this overstuffed album – some of the funk is too sleek and polite ("We Were Rock ‘n’ Roll"), some of the ballads too schmaltzy ("Look into My Eyes"). Monae’s love of the past occasionally sinks into mere nostalgia, but not for long. If anything, there are almost too many ideas packed into these 19 songs and interludes. A key subtext of each Monae release so far is that Cindi Mayweather is a social outsider, an outcast, an outlaw. Here’s one more idea to ponder: Will "The Electric Lady" establish Monae’s alter-ego as the first bi-sexual African-American android pop star? No wonder Prince wanted in on the action.
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