I said Goddddddddd Daaaaaamn Internets! The Sultry Sultan is back to drop another dogmatic and dastardly discourse for the damned, the disconcerted, and the demented. It’s becoming exceedingly difficult to decussate the cavernous layers of new music these days. Which albums deserve your time, bandwidth, and coin? Do not put undue strain on yourself; let his HIGHness and Portentous Professors of the Moist Graffiti tell you what you should like. You’re perfectly willing to let us do society’s heavy lifting in our day jobs; why shouldn’t that extend into the realm of entertainment as well. The Moist Graffiti: WE DEFINE YOUR WORLD!
The second album that the Exalted One has deemed worthy of his precious time and effort is that of the ArchAndroid herself, Janelle Monáe. The reasons for this choice are many, but chief among them is the unique challenge that reviewing an album like this presents– namely, the question of how much subjectivity one should allow to creep into the ostensibly non-biased realm of critiquing art. Does an album that by all objective standards is adequate, deserve by this narrow definition of what “good” art is, a glowing review? Or can a reviewer base his or her judgement at least partially on how much he or she connected to the art on an emotional level? How much did it speak to them thematically?
This existential tug of war has plagued this reviewer for a fortnight. I daresay his Highness’s royal slumber has even been curtailed by this nagging philosophical conundrum. The Electric Lady is for all intents and purposes a fantastic album. The production is solid, the songs are varied (to an extent), the vocals are soulful, and for science’s sake, it even has The Purple One singing backup on one of the tracks. BACKUP!!!! Why then, has it not earned his highness’s royal favor? Why don’t I love it?
In 2007 Monáe burst onto the musical scene already consecrated by some of the industry’s most inviolable– Prince, Big Boi, and Erykah Badu (to a name a few). If this downpour of love, and anointing as the new Q.U.E.E.N./messiah of neo-soul, funk, indie, hip/hop, and political philosophy/sociology felt/feels like it is/was a bit too much too soon, it is because it is/was. At this point in history Monáe barely had an EP to her name, and because of this, one must give her credit. Any other artist surely would have withered and died under the pressure, and wound up in a gutter somewhere, with diseased needles protruding from in-between fungus ridden toes while dreams of what could have been danced deeply within otherwise dead eyes. However, Monáe rose to the occasion and released ArchAndroid in 2010 to critical acclaim. The album won a grammy, and was graced by a varied assortment of artists, including indie darlings such as Of Montreal, spoken word poet Saul Williams, and Southern rap demigod Big Boi. The world rejoiced.
That brings us to present day with Monáe’s most recent effort: The Electric Lady. Someone needs to tell her that a soulful voice, intelligence, passion, natural beauty, and the dancing acumen of a Thom Yorke/ Michael Jackson fusion hybrid (think Gogeta from DBZ) aren’t enough to make it to the top of the pop music game. What she needs to get is a giant foam finger, a misogynist clad in a beetle juice costume singing about blurred lines of sexual consent, a tad bit of self loathing and impropriety, and the worst case of tardive dyskinesia anyone has ever seen.
Oh…are the Miley Cyrus jokes getting old? Yeah…that’s kind of how I feel about this album’s concept. In dozens of (annoying) interviews, Monáe has explained her tired android metaphor. The android is a societal representation of the “other,” or in non-liberal arts (read successful people) terms, a mirrored reflection of white, male, heterosexual, privilege. Yeah… we get it. Your music is for anyone who has ever felt disenfranchised, marginalized, racialized, and any other “ized” the academic elite could fabricate in a feeble attempt to assuage their feelings of white guilt. Now don’t get me wrong, the Sultan is just as progressive and forward thinking as the next caliph. In fact, I have taken but a few wives as evidenced by this family photo:
But still, even the most progressive among us can concede the point that the themes Monáe is shoving down our throats are nothing new. If you want to make a statement with your art, can it be original? Or at the very least, different from the statement you made in your last album? None of this is to say that issues of racial and gender injustice aren’t real. They are, and should be dealt with like they have been for decades now: being mulled over and debated by pseudo-intellectuals in grad-school seminars, and in pedantic and ponderous peer-reviewed texts that no one reads.
Sometimes listeners just want to imbibe their favorite adult beverage, put on some tunes, and escape the harsh realities of living in a post-racial America, as opposed to being bludgeoned relentlessly over the head with facile metaphors that lose all literary significance in their lack of of subtlety. This album reminds me a lot of that movie, Crash that won best picture a few years ago over that one other movie about dudes barebacking in tents.
Was the movie (Crash, Not Tales From the Funky Flesh Tent) watchable? Sure! Was the acting decent? Yup! Was the cinematography sound? Uh-huh. What about the script? Well. It had Luda. Fuck it, why not? But tell the Sultan this: how often do you just pop Crash into your brainwash box because you’ve had a shitty day and you just want to relax to an awesome movie? Never. It’s a chore to sit through just like any other movie that’s won best picture, except this one makes me lament the loss of Terrence Howard’s career.
That is exactly how The Electric Lady comes off at times. I don’t feel like being talked down to like an 18 year old sitting in Intro to Political Philosophy. These aren’t new ideas. They are concepts that have been espoused and debated by every talking head on CNN, every professor that is up for tenure, and every student that got fed the line of bullshit on their first day of college that they now are “part of the conversation.”
So, the theme is trite, and the metaphor tired and nonsensical, what about the music, Sultan? The music for the most part is passable. The harmonies are beautiful, and Monáe sings with the passion and conviction that some of her contemporaries would kill for. The first song, “Givin Em What They Love,” features none other than Prince….SINGING BACKUP!!!!! If you’re unaware, The Purple One rarely graces the albums of the musical proletariat (which compared to Prince is pretty much everyone), let alone would he ever stoop to the level of backup singer. But Janelle apparently has the clout to get Prince to do just that. Too bad this track is one of the weaker ones on the album. Janelle spends two minutes of the track feebly attempting to mimic the voice of one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work… she sounds a bit like…well…exactly like you’d expect someone to sound when trying to imitate Prince.
Janelle is at her best when she is singing in her normal, silky smooth, high alto register on tracks like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Dance Apocalyptic,” and the title track, “Electric Lady”. The problem with this album is that for every well-rounded and dynamic song, like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” there is a really superficial Crash-like song that is gorgeous and well orchestrated, but ultimately goes nowhere. “Sally Ride,” “What an Experience,” and “Ghetto Woman” are perfect examples of this. These songs deftly adopt a myriad of musical influences from Rock and Roll, to Jazz, to Funk, to Neo-Soul, without innovating in these styles at all. For all of her pedigree, clout, and stage presence, musically, Monae is still not “part of the conversation.” She is still nervously attending her first day of college, wide eyed and curious, but unable to contribute anything revolutionary.
P.S. This review runs contrary to what most other media outlets are saying about this album, so I would humbly ask you to direct all hate mail to https://twitter.com/MoistGraffiti.
Moist Graffiti Rating
Silky Smooth Vocals: 73.001
Adequate Production Value and Trite Concept: 65.034
Solid, Yet Riskless Songwriting: 68.253
Prince Singing BACKUP!!!!!: +999
Song In Which Prince Sings Backup Sucking Kinda: -998
MG Rating: 68.762
One Plus Seventy-One Loves,