Janelle Monáe's story involves androids, futuristic cities, and some of the most mercurial pop music in years, but it begins in an unlikely place: Office Depot. Just a few years ago, Monáe (real name: Janelle Monáe Robinson) was ringing up reams of printer paper, selling her CDs, and performing around Atlanta on the side. One day, the company cameras caught her corresponding with fans on the job, and she was terminated. It was no surprise. "They knew my heart wasn't there," Monáe says. "It's not by chance that I got fired. It was supposed to happen."
Rather than despair the loss of her day job, the struggling singer wrote a song about the experience called "Lettin' Go," a rambunctious jam that attracted the attention of Outkast's Big Boi. He included the track on his 2005 comp, Got Purp, Vol. 2, and invited her to sing on Outkast's 2006 album, Idlewild.
Those big-box origins are ironic considering that Monáe has turned out to be such an unorthodox, uncategorizable, inimitable artist — seemingly worlds removed from such a banal setting. First of all, it's hard to imagine her sporting the Office Depot uniform. Onstage and in videos, Monáe always sports a dapper tux with short pants, tap shoes, and a towering pseudo-bouffant (which she calls a "Monáe," of course). And it's hard to picture her stocking shelves when her liquid dance moves recall the fluidity of Michael Jackson and the walk-on-water footwork of James Brown. Self-assured in its eccentricities and imaginative in its dizzying synthesis of styles and ideas, her full-length debut, The ArchAndroid, picks up right where her 2007 EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, left off, continuing the story of her Bowie-esque alter ego: an android named Cyndi Mayweather.
"She is an android, and she fell in love with a human," Monáe explains. "She is persecuted for that, and she's on the run. Cyndi discovers that she is the ArchAndroid, who is like an archangel from the Bible, like Neo from The Matrix. She is the heart that mediates the hand and the heart, the oppressed and the oppressor."
This fantastical sci-fi saga allows Monáe to explore some very earthbound issues: What does it mean to be human? Is humanity rooted in our being or our actions? "I deal with the androids because I feel like I can connect with the Other and because I feel like an android represents the new Other," she says. "One day, we will live in a world where we'll be among androids. How will we get along? Will we fear them? Treat them inhumanely?" It's heady stuff, drawing from Fritz Lang, Philip K. Dick, futurist Ray Kurzweil, and African-American sci-fi author Octavia Butler.
Surprisingly, Monáe's vision of the future isn't necessarily dystopian; in fact, musically it may be a utopia. While the android narrative is a potentially alienating glam-hop odyssey, at the very least it gives Monáe a useful framework to indulge every musical whim that crosses her busy brain. Featuring guests ranging from Big Boi to Saul Williams to Of Montreal, The ArchAndroid hotwires an eclectic blend of urban R&B, Southern bass, James Brown funk, and motormouthed hip-hop, then soups it up with smooth jazz, blistering psych rock, soundtrack orchestrations, and British folk madrigals.
And yet, diversity is no end in itself. Rather, Monáe savors the transitions, the spaces in between songs and genres. The album's artistic success is less contingent on the many elements at her command but on how she assembles them. The first half is nearly flawless, as the dark pomp stomp of "Dance or Die" segues seamlessly into the feet-afire "Faster" and the relatively mellow "Locked Inside." She caps that suite of songs with "Sir Greendown," which sounds like Mariah Carey backed by the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Part of the thrill of listening to The ArchAndroid is hearing Monáe make the improbable sound not just possible but inevitable. In this regard, she's part of a recent movement of smart women making artfully ambitious dance-oriented pop music that doesn't skimp on innovation or emotion. The last year has seen killer albums by Annie, Sissy Wish, Lady Gaga, and Goldfrapp, and the next few months will see excellent albums by Robyn and Kelis. "I definitely am excited about the music that women are making," Monáe says, "and I think it's important that we support each other. I just want to see more of us out there."
Even as she shoots for pop stardom, Monáe makes music for mortals, never mind how spacey or mechanized her ideas are. "We created this music for the people," she says, "for those everyday people who are working, who are going through life's obstacles, feeling depressed, oppressed, repressed."
Such a mission ensures that her music remains grittily rooted in catchy melodies and that her live shows are hyperbolically energetic. "I get possessed," Monáe says. "It feels like a spiritual experience, and sometimes I'll not even remember what I did that night. I'm just creating art — right before the audience's eyes, right before my own eyes."
For all her forward-thinking syntheses and futuristic imagery, Monáe's goals are ultimately old-fashioned: She wants to be an entertainer. Everything she does is to blow your mind, to make pop a singular expression of joy and life. "Being an African-American woman, I think it's important that individuals embrace and celebrate our differences," she explains. "I want to help redefine what it means to be successful, and I want to redefine the type of music that people who look like me can create."
She's not only depicting the future; Monáe is fighting to create it.
Opening for Erykah Badu
Thursday, June 10th
8 p.m.; $60-$70