For the past month I have been embroiled in a wondrous chase. A chase so thrilling it feels as though I’ve left the physical part of me behind every time I tune into its hyperactive frequency.
A city, a futuristic metropolis materialises all around me. High-speed vehicles zip this way and that overhead and law enforcement patrols cruise the skyways for in search of troublemakers. Here, down in the grimy low levels things are no less busy, with the streets and back alleys teeming with the homeless, the forgotten and those who scrap a living on the suffering of others. Cleaner bots, gangsters and unlucky merchants fill these streets. Suddenly an android hurtles past disappearing into the gloom of a neighbouring alley. And all at once the sound of sirens can be heard drawing closer and closer. The deathtroopers are approaching…
That’s one instance of how three consecutive songs from Janelle Monáe’s first EP, The Chase, make me feel. Honestly, how can it have taken me this long to discover her transcendent sci-fi music when it’s practically been staring me in the face for months?
Comprising soul, R&B, rap, pop, jazz, dub, funk, dance and a whole blend of other genres that I can’t classify, it would be an understatement to say that her EP and debut album, The ArchAndroid, weren’t meteoric in scope. Yet Monáe navigates and combines these genres with profound skill and purpose. What spurred me to purchase her music was hearing the song ‘Tightrope’ during Edger Wright’s New Year’s Day show on BBC 6 Music. An immediately chatty dance track, I was sold one that alone.
What I didn’t realise was just how deep her emotional touch would be with the breadth of her stupendous sounds. Tunes like ‘Many Moons’, ‘Faster’ and ‘Oh, Maker’ took me on an astral hike like never before. Impossible to resist, these tracks just send my body into overdrive. Even when confined to the drudgery of my commute and expected behaviour on public transport, a brilliant tableau of imagery is flowing in my mind’s eye as Monáe’s music and messages engulf my senses. And this isn’t your usual ‘girl meets boy and falls in love’ lyrics. She manages to express serious social commentary on race, segregation and war through a conceptual allegory which forms the basis for her image. As Tony Renner says, Monáe’s albums are to be listened to in their entirety if you wish to experience the full impact of her art.
Which brings me to the thing that makes Monáe even more special to me: her sci-fi styling. There are few musicians I’m aware of that could pull off the Blade Runner-esque transience that she as accomplished.
And it comes as even more of a surprise, and indeed a huge delight, that it should be a black female artist. Her persona goes against the grain of many of her female peers, who, even if they are intelligent enough to challenge social hegemonies, prefer to conform to the stereotype of ‘hip hop honeys’ which the world seems to feel is their role in life. (Her music contains what been coined as ‘Afrofuturism’.)
Getting back to the sci-fi presentation, it’s so well realised that I couldn’t help but be drawn in. I recall spying her album cover briefly in a print advert last year and thinking nothing of it – I judged it purely the one Isaac Asimov-like image. How foolish I was.
Janelle Monáe is a contemporary visionary.
She inhabits her alter ego of Cindi Mayweather, an android who has fallen in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, in this hash postmodern world, where many of today inequalities still exist. As a result of her affection, she is now on the run from the Wolfmasters and their merciless band of bounty hunters in a city built on social stratification.
Monáe has formed this as part of an overall concept series, called Metropolis, which is comprised of four suites (so far Suite I: The Chase and Suites II and III: The ArchAndroid). In the linear notes of each CD, you can read a brief synopsis which sets up the musical journey you are about to experience. With her lyrical expressions about cybergirls, cold wars and neon valleys, depictions of sci-fi classics bubble up in my brain.
If you’re interested in finding out more about this pioneering artist, Rockaliser Baby has made some great observations on her and the conceptual direction, BBC Introducing did an early spotlight in 2009, and LaShawn Wanak has more insightful words on the music itself, its influences and how it makes her feel. io9 also spoke to Monáe about more of her sci-fi inspirations.
What I have experienced this month is a euphoric rhapsody of style and substance that’s about as frequent in life as a comet’s orbit. Janelle Monáe is a woman after my own heart. She connects with me on so many levels, be it her exciting blend of musical styles or her science fiction imagery, that I relish the thought of waking up to join her on the run once again. It would take some seriously malicious rewiring for me to resist the call of her future endeavours. All I really want to do now is share her spectacular music with others so we might immerse ourselves in Metropolis together.