The term “genre-bending” is applied pretty liberally in music, more often referring to occasional digressions from a generally homogenous sound than to sweeping stylistic oscillations. But Janelle Monáe truly earns the tag on The ArchAndroid (Suites II And III). Her sophomore album bounds among tracks that stray far outside the boundaries of her loose “soul” designation, and frequently strain at the basic conventions of pop music itself. Monáe’s chameleonic nature extends to every aspect of her performance, including her ever-changing vocals, which swing from Beyoncé-like diva strut on “Cold War” to punk-rock-cabaret snarl on “Come Alive” to pastoral, madrigal-esque balladry on “57821.”
But what sounds like a shambling mess in description is in practice frequently exhilarating, and always intriguing. Granted, Monáe’s vacillations occasionally create some jarring moments, such as a grating/beguiling interlude in which all the vocals are played in reverse (“Neon Gumbo”) following the album’s most radio-ready single (“Tightrope,” featuring Big Boi). However, such fluctuations are usually justified by the album’s loose concept, which continues the saga of Monáe’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, first explored on her 2007 debut EP, Metropolis. But really, Monáe’s inexhaustible swagger and singular style sell both the high-concept theatrics and the schizophrenic sonics.