Kansas City psych-soul sweetheart Janelle Monáe certainly has the onstage charisma and the glitzy credentials off it to attract Prince and international plaudits alike, although as we voyeuristically embark upon the voyage of further discovery that is sophomore recording The Electric Lady, one question remains: does Monáe really possess the prerequisite creativity for R&B omnipotence?
“I heard this life is just a play with no rehearsal/ I wonder, will this be my final act tonight?”
With Janelle’s schizoid talk of twerking in the mirror (the Erykah Badu-featuring Q.U.E.E.N.) and pristine squealing of mainstream rhetoric (“It’s a prime time for our love, and Heaven is betting on us” on the Miguel-abetted Primetime) there’s a sense she’s attempting to better infiltrate the contemporary pop slipstream this time, these polished neo-soul nuggets transparently wound up toward the making of that more commercial splash. Though they jar when set against the irksome surrealism of yore that, although a little repressed this time around, sporadically remains. The “I’ll reprogram your mind/ Come on, get in!/ My spaceship leaves at ten! Oh!” almost-rhyming couplet of its title track, one unfortunately not altogether dissimilar in timbre to turn-of-the-century All Saints, appears to unite the quirky with the conventional, given its implicit recognition of the flagrant brainwashing capabilities of those behind your average chart-botherer. Nonetheless if The ArchAndroid represented not only a vehicle capable of transporting Monáe to a bigger time, but so too one you’d actively want to clamber aboard, then The Electric Lady struggles to keep pace with its primarily superior predecessor.
Indeed, the real dearth of instant classic is really becoming a genuine issue. We Were Rock & Roll shamelessly recalls Madcon’s Beggin’, the Oslo duo’s greatest hit of course in turn deriving its success from elsewhere. And essentially, where Monáe has previously, and not infrequently, been painted as a radical soul revolutionary, it’s intensely saddening for her to now sound like some kind of third-generation derivative only too content to rely on the mercenary heft of her ostensible contemporaries. For The Electric Lady is a decidedly top-heavy specimen, the early guest turns swiftly thinning out to allow for a more vibrant, if rather less cohesive latter half to take hold. From the off-kilt uke-led doo-wop of Dance Apocalyptic, during which Janelle attempts to turn the tide as she quips of overly materialistic “poor, shiny, little lonely men”, to the incongruously blobby Ghetto Woman on which early and latter-day MJ are pummelled ham-fistedly into a totally inessential Motown reprise bereft of every artistic integrity, to say The Electric Lady fizzles out early is to undersell the disappointment.
The sanctimonious overtones of Sally Ride prove its real damp squib however, her assurance, “Like a rose in the cold I will rise” stunted and absolutely inexact. Her guarantee, “I’m packing my spacesuit, and I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon” will likely be met with greater relish, though if there is but one positive to speak of this lowlight then it’s that her vocal, irreproachable as per, is for once allowed to ring clear. As for much of The Electric Lady, it finds itself excessively smothered in overwrought production values. There is, mercifully, no Auto-Tune of which to speak, robotically warble nor write, but the caramelised processing of Monáe’s pipes – one evinced in the Always Be My Baby-aping What An Experience – is, at best, lamentable.
Though if there is this one saving grace, then it’s surely Givin’ Em What They Love – a genuinely eccentric bounder that may be feasibly deemed The Purple One’s finest work since that of his now-unrecognisable later ’80s guise. His oddball guitar lines strangely reminiscent of Primus, Monáe cuts through with suggestions she’s “sharper than a razor/ Eyes made of lasers” and although in light of that which is to come it’s almost implausible to agree, it’s impossible not to succumb to such uninhibited extravagance. Thus as Prince decrees it the “first and last of what God made, and that’s the truth” it’s only too difficult to disagree. For The Electric Lady is Monáe giving back all too little of what we know and have come to love, and we can but hope she’s able to relocate that elusive spark to have charged her past…
Released: September 9th, 2013 [Atlantic Records]