The fact that Janelle Monáe doesn’t perform a song by herself, without a guest feature, until a third of the way into her second full-length album, The Electric Lady, speaks to the collaborative, inclusive instincts that have formed and defined her musical aesthetic; a diva she is not. The first of those features is from Prince—who rarely guests on tracks and has been a champion of Monáe’s since her 2007 debut EP—and this speaks to her increased clout since the release of her much-beloved breakthrough, 2010’s The ArchAndroid. Said Prince feature, “Givin’ ’Em What They Love,” is unmistakably a piece of Monáe’s ongoing Metropolis concept series, with Monáe once again playing the part of android fugitive Cindi Mayweather, which speaks to the cohesive yet wildly unique milieu the 27-year-old singer has forged over the course of her short career—a world that other artists want to play in.
It’s easy to get lost trying to hammer out the specifics of that world, particularly on The Electric Lady, which for the first time uses interlude skits to expand the mythology of Metropolis, Cindi Mayweather, and her android acolytes. Monáe’s high-concept weirdness has been a part of her musical package from the jump, but this is the first time it starts to feel intrusive rather than organic, with the skits creating a narrative expectation that the songs don’t satisfactorily bear out. (Especially when it all serves as a broad metaphor for “otherness,” be it racial, sexual, economic, or spiritual; there’s a certain “insert your own ideology” at hand that can feel a little pandering when it’s this overt.) As signposts go, the two overtures that divide the album are much more telling: As with ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady is divided into two “suites,” each with its own opening “electric overture,” delineating two very different halves of the same album. Monáe is clearly working within an act-based structure—her debut EP was the first act, or suite, ArchAndroid suites two and three—and acts four and five are an apt illustration of the two sides of Monáe/Mayweather.
It’s not an exact division—that would be too simple—but in general, the first half of The Electric Lady falls into the category of crowd-pleaser, full of radio-ready earworms and dance-floor bait that follows in the saddle-shoed footsteps of her breakout single “Tightrope.” Rare is an album as front-loaded with potential hits as this one; and, indeed, the album’s three pre-release singles—the Erykah Badu-featuring “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the gleefully bratty “Dance Apocalyptic,” and the sultry “Primetime,” featuring Miguel—all figure within this first suite. There’s plenty of arresting, dynamic, and memorable fare here—the slinky, thrusting “Givin’ ’Em What They Love” and the Solange-guesting title track in particular—but the second half is where Monáe really shows off the depth and breadth of her musical influences. It’s nowhere near as immediately grabby as the strut of “Q.U.E.E.N.” or the thrilling “chalanga-langa-lang!” of “Dance Apocalyptic,” but it’s ultimately much more intriguing, showing off the soul that animates this soulful android.
This second half is no more or less overtly autobiographical than the first; Monáe lists her inspirations for every song in the liner notes, and they’re split evenly throughout between musical or cultural reference points (“Inspired by Michael Jackson’s glistening Jheri curl in Thriller and Bo Diddley’s tremolo guitar”) and personal dreams or memories (“Inspired by the midnight dreams of Cindi Mayweather”). But the second half nonetheless feels more personal and revealing; it’s where Monáe stops acting as an animatronic dance-revolution figurehead and steps back to reveal a little bit of her inner circuitry. Broadly speaking, it’s less R&B, more soul, but genre distinctions don’t go very far when attempting to categorize Monáe’s music; it’s more about the ideas and visceral feelings she’s trying to evoke with each song, and “Suite V” of the Metropolis saga feels more open and exploratory—both lyrically and musically—than anything before it. It’s as close to vulnerable as Monáe has allowed herself to seem, which is saying something for a woman who’s merged her entire persona with that of an android.
The apex of this exploration comes with the heart-stopping “Victory,” which is tellingly inspired by “the life and times of Janelle Monáe.” It’s a breathtaking vocal performance, showing the raw, emotive power of Monáe’s voice, which often gets overshadowed by the singer’s conversation-stoking look and concept. But beyond that, it has a classic, relatively unadorned sound that feels timeless and true. Monáe’s music is made up of dreams and visions and heady ideas, but “Victory” feels like it came from the actual person from whom all those dreams and visions and ideas stem.
And Monáe lets those ideas run wild on the album’s back half, from the shimmying electro-funk of “Ghetto Woman” to the spacey, soaring “Sally Ride,” both of which extend the album’s cagey feminist and sexual undertones. Monáe has cultivated an air of sexual ambiguity around her personal life, and The Electric Lady’s proliferation of songs celebrating or idolizing female subjects—see also, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”—could be taken as either a literal statement of orientation or simply an extension of Monáe’s freewheeling view of the world around her and in her head. But the songs themselves are undeniably empowering without being especially overt or sloganeering about it; where Beyoncé claims that girls run the world, Monáe has gone ahead and created her own world, one with her own rules. Sure, it’s a world built on a foundation of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Duke Ellington, Ennio Morricone, and the countless other idea-seeds from which The Electric Lady grew, but it’s one Monáe has cultivated and shaped in her own distinct, unmistakable image. And if that’s as “personal” as her high-concept music ultimately gets, it’s still one of a kind.