Janelle Monáe is finally back with the long-awaited release of her new album “The Electric Lady,” the follow-up to 2010’s widely-praised “The ArchAndroid.” Monáe deftly weaves an electric mix of pop, funk, R&B and dance into a superbly addictive collection. She builds on retro sounds and influences to create an eclectic showcase that is modern and timeless.
Prince is the most obvious influence (listen to those “1999”-era synth lines on “Q.U.E.E.N". as just one of many examples), and the man himself appears as a guest on the thrilling funk-rock track “Given Em What They Love.” There are other guests, including Esperanza Spalding, Solange, Erykah Badu and Miguel -- but there is no question Monáe herself is the star of the show. “The Electric Lady” is a far better-crafted album than the vast majority of anything on the pop charts these days. It’s bold, ambitious, gorgeously arranged and produced, and just a blast to play at full volume.
There are a number of potential singles. The title song “Electric Lady” has a particularly funky vibe -- it’s a mix of ‘80s and ‘90s pop and R&B influences and has a killer hook. The frenetic “Dance Apocalyptic,” for which she’s already released a memorable video, is an irresistibly catchy pastiche of old-school R&B reminiscent of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”.
Monáe is well-known for her eclectic style and songwriting, but she also shines as a vocalist on tracks like “Primetime,” a slow-burning duet with Miguel that features beautifully layered vocals over a sensual groove. Again, the Prince influence is hugely apparent here, but she matches (or exceeds) anything the man himself has done in recent years.
“We Were Rock & Roll” has a bit of a Beyoncé vibe, and is another potential sure-fire single. The ability of Monáe to hop genres and borrow from a diverse array of influences is limitless, as shown by the combo of “Look Into My Eyes” and “Suite V: Electric Overture” -- a beautifully elegant Latin-tinged orchestral ballad followed by an instrumental built around the same melodic line. Together they seem like an attempt to produce what would be a perfect James Bond theme. The end result is spellbinding.
The album ends with “What an Experience,” an aptly-titled track if there ever was one. “The Electric Lady” is an example of the best that popular music has to offer. It’s a deeply engaging, lengthy album that will require time to fully absorb -- the complex and clever arrangements reveal something new on each listen. If Monáe doesn’t break through big on the pop charts with at least one of these amazing tracks, while a pedestrian throwaway like Katy Perry’s “Roar” can soar to #1 in days, there is simply no justice in the music industry. The timing couldn’t be more perfect -- artists like Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, Bruno Mars and others have enjoyed great success with heavily retro-sounding material, and Monáe’s album is a continuation of this trend. “The Electric Lady” is an audacious album -- exquisitely crafted, loaded with fun and catchy songs, powerful vocals and imaginative arrangements. It’s an album that we’ll look back on in ten or twenty years as one that helps define this era of popular music. Janelle Monáe is the real deal. A serious contender for album of the year, and a must-own -- buy it today. Monáe will be in D.C. on October 14 performing at the Lincoln Theatre.