Collected Works: Music
by Janelle Monáe
An orchestra tunes up quietly. The polite applause of a concert hall audience welcomes a conductor to the podium. We hear a timpani stroke, plaintive woodwind pairings, lush string chords, a smidgen of brass, and the interjections of a choir. Then a hissing message plays, as if a strained radio transmission: ‘One by one / It’s your time, lead them both back to one’. The classical tones swell to a climax, then static heralds a switch to a station that favours rap funk.
The overture’s announcement sets the scene for the action ahead, just as its musical material is drawn from the suite of songs that follows. The year is 2719 and Cindi Mayweather, clone of Janelle Monáe, has been revealed as the mythic ArchAndroid. She must free the citizens of her beloved Metropolis, while avoiding disassembly after falling in love with a human. We listen in for the duration of the album as she goes on the lam, dreaming of electric sheep.
The ArchAndroid thrives on both creating a futurist world and filling it with familiar popular culture references. On ‘Say You Go’, percussion, strings, and synths give way to interpolations of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The liner notes cite Mary Poppins, Fela Kuti, Rachmaninoff, and Muhammad Ali as influences. The album artwork alludes to Fritz Lang. Yet cohesion rules, aided by the fluid transitions between tracks. The first song bleeds into the second, with no pause or key change to separate the two.
Within this narrative, androids are viewed as the new ‘Other’. For Monáe, the parallels to the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and the LGBT* community are clear. Opposing Cindi’s campaign for equality and liberty is a secret society called the Great Divide, which uses time travel ‘to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages’. The ArchAndroid’s frenetic eclecticism seeks to prove that such divisions, whether sociopolitical or musical, are far from hardwired.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can listen to 'Suite II Overture' here, 'Tightrope' here, and 'Cold War' here. Laura Snapes has interviewed Janelle Monáe for The Quietus. John Calvert has written about Monáe and Afrofuturism, again for The Quietus, and Phil Sandifer has written about the Metropolis Saga (the story behind the album) for Eruditorum Press.
Question of the day
Anything by Asa-Chang & Junray. Fifteen years ago I thought they were fifteen years ahead of their time. I still don’t hear anything like it. Highest recommendation. (→)
– Sandro Perri, musician, producer, and member of Off World (via The Brief →)