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Review: Janelle Monae's 'Electric Lady' impressive, but lacking

By Randall Roberts

8:15 AM EDT, September 10, 2013

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In a modern pop music landscape in which the single is king and hit-making producers are mostly free agents spreading their sound through vessel vocalists, Janelle Monae and her Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society stand out.

On Monae's grandiose new album, "The Electric Lady," Wondaland's creativity is on full display. A continuation of a seven-part series that Monae and company introduced in 2007, the singer and a great mix of guests (Prince, Miguel, Solange, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding) again travel a fictional landscape.

Monae rolls through the album like fellow conceptualists David Bowie and George Clinton cloned into the body of a droid — one nicknamed the Electric Lady No. 1. It's an impressive feat, thematically, and the kind of creative chance that too few high-profile artists are willing to take.

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Musically, however, "The Electric Lady" lacks a center, as though Monae sacrificed sonic vision in favor of her narrative. As expansive and meandering as a concept album by Yes, Monae's talent seems diluted by variety. It's hard to tell where the human is. One minute she's pushing quiet storm R&B ("It's Code,") the next she and her band are doing lounge music ("Suite V: Electric Overture").

Excellent moments dot the record. "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes," featuring Spalding, is a trippy, jazz-fused ballad. The more traditional "PrimeTime" features Monae teaming with Miguel for a steady love song. Though long and featuring a bounty of ideas, "The Electric Lady" is surprisingly slight.

Janelle Monae

"The Electric Lady"

(Atlantic Records)

Two stars (out of four)

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