Janelle Monáe's special new sci-fi-themed album has a slew of sensational funk, soul, r'n'b, rock and pop tunes. The tuxedo-wearer from Kansas likes to stand out, but maintains her right to fit in. She talks androids and outsiders with Jim Carroll
The time is right. The ArchAndroidmay not be Janelle Monáe's first release, but this blockbuster of an album will be her calling card for a while to come. After all, we've been waiting for an album like this for quite some time.
Flamboyant, exciting, ambitious and sharp, The ArchAndroidis a rousing call to arms. Monáe hangs out a magnificent haul of dazzling funk, soul, r'n'b, rock and pop tunes on a concept line borrowed from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It's a hell of a concept: she is Cindi Mayweather, an android rebel from 2719 rocking a killer quiff and sporting a tuxedo – but she adroitly delivers the killer pop tunes too.
In real life, Monáe is a quietly spoken, extremely polite, slightly tired young woman dressed in a starched white shirt and trousers, sipping some juice in a London hotel room. She keeps her sunglasses on for the entire interview, which may have more to do with the effects of a lot of travel and promotion in recent days than any android tendencies.
She certainly talks a good game. “I knew I wanted other musicians and people to be inspired by it, to be moved by it,” she says about the new album. “I wanted to create an emotion picture with emotions that hadn’t been touched in a very long time. I wanted to create something that people could be proud of, that they could say ‘I was around when this music was created’. We were fearless.”
She’s not in Kansas any more. That’s where Monáe grew up, a kid from the hard-scrabble side of the tracks who had a hankering for the arts. She was involved in musical theatre, acted in plays and was part of the city’s young playwrights’ collective in the Coterie Theatre. There was no music in the frame, oddly enough, as Monáe went searching for her creative role.
A move to New York was next, but Monáe didn’t hit the jackpot there either. She attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and quickly found it wasn’t for her.
“I mean, I learned a lot there,” she stresses. “I learned about technique, and my voice, and getting on with others. I was the only African-American girl in pretty much all my classes, and I’d come from an all-African-American high school, so it was good to be exposed to different cultures.
“But I didn’t want to sound or perform like everyone else. I didn’t want to be influenced by standardised teaching. I didn’t like feeling that I was auditioning for a part that had already been done millions and millions of times. And I didn’t want to be in school.”
She packed her bags and headed to Atlanta. Bar a friend from home, Monáe knew no one in the city, but it didn’t matter.
"I moved into a boarding house with five other girls and I stayed there. I started to write songs, stuck out an independent CD called The Auditionand was literally selling it out of my room, while working at Office Depot."
Her luck turned on a tour of black colleges when she met Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning. “That was a matrix moment for me. I knew we needed to be a team. What we were doing was very much in line, but we’d be much more powerful if we were together.” Wonder, Lightning and Monáe became the Wondaland Arts Society, a trio of writers, producers and confidants who decided to take on the world together.
The world, though, was not quite ready for them.
“We had setbacks,” Monáe remembers. “We did a lot of showcases for record labels, but they were out of touch with what the people wanted to hear. I knew, because I’d been selling my CDs, and knew there were over 10,000 students in this one area gravitating towards what we are doing.
"But the labels didn't see it, and we just stopped doing those showcases and decided we could do without the middleman. As soon as we stopped, we released Metropolisand the calls started coming in from people like Sean Combs and we started taking meetings, this time to partner not to sign. We had learned our lesson."
Monáe wasn’t just learning about the record business from her new collaborators. Lightning introduced her to the idea of androids, and it blew her mind.
"I didn't know what an android was back in Kansas," she smiles. "Chuck introduced me to sci-fi and he sent me off to check out Fritz Lang, and I watched Metropolisand was really inspired by it. There was a quote in it that said 'the mediator between the mind and the hands is the heart'. I thought that was me, I always wanted to unite people with my music.
"Then I started to get into Alienand Blade Runner,and I started to look at the android as the form of the other, all the discrimination that the android faced in these films. I could relate to that, the idea of being the minority within the majority.
"I started to read Ray Kurzweil's Singularity Is Near, where he proposes that we'll live in a world with androids very soon and an android brain will have surpassed that of a human so you won't be able to differentiate between androids and humans. I began to wonder how we'd get along and would we teach our children to fear them. I just thought the concept was so next level. but it's so right and so present tense too."
It’s not the first time that pop has turned to a concept. Monáe points to Stevie Wonder as an example of how it was done right.
"He had lots of concept albums and we wanted the music to be timeless, like Songs in the Key of Lifeor Music of My Mind, albums you could listen to from the beginning to the end, songs which made you cry or laugh. Stevie has written so many songs which make me cry every time I hear them and no one has been able to evoke that emotion in me every time."
Monáe’s concept comes with a uniform, something she says is a tribute to her folks. “My mother was a janitor, my father drove trash trucks and my stepfather works at the post office. I’ve been around people who wanted to turn nothing into something all my life and I wear my uniform to pay homage to them. I started dressing like this from when I said I wanted to take being an artist seriously because this is my job.”
Monáe’s androgynous look also makes a subtle statement about how female pop acts look. “I’ve never promoted being different just for the sake of being different,” she says. “I’m more about individuality. If I have to fit in, part of me is being erased because I become a mimic.
“I believe we’d be in a better place if people were happier with what makes them unique and they weren’t persecuted for being black, green, orange, gay, straight, whatever. Being a woman can be defined in so many ways. You don’t have to wear dresses or high heels in order to be successful or sexy, that’s just following a blueprint.”
Standing out also brought her to the attention of the fashion pack. "I've been in Voguefour times already, wearing the same thing," she giggles. "I think that's cool, though. It shows that we don't all have to dress the same or be all monolithic.
“I’d love to press up tuxedos for disadvantaged girls in America or Africa, give them their own uniform, their own superhero uniform. I think every young lady should have a tuxedo.”
Later, the tuxedo is abandoned when Monáe showcases the new album in a tiny club on the other side of town. The room is crammed, there’s sweat rolling down the walls and an electric buzz of expectation crackles in the air before Monáe hits the stage. It’s a shows the audience will be talking about for some time. Monáe slays ’em with a set packing in many of those classic influences (James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Nina Simone, Outkast, Prince, Grace Jones) that have helped shape her sound.
Song after song, you’re awed by what you’re seeing and hearing. Whatever it is, Monáe has it. This is the start of something special.
The ArchAndroid is out now on Bad Boy