Return to the epic sci-fi tale of Metropolis in Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady
Many people know Janelle Monae for creating some incredibly catchy pop songs that all but obligate your rump to shake. Fewer people realize that beyond the unstoppable booty shaking beats, her albums are actually part of an ongoing 7-part sci-fi epic with inspirations from Fritz Lang to Alfred Hitchcock and Sally Ride.
Intelligently, Monae's albums always seem to come with a couple of radio and YouTube-ready hits that are bound to draw in new listeners. For her last album, The ArchAndroid, those songs were “Tightrope” and “Cold War” and they did their job spectacularly well, catapulting Monae into stardom.
Beneath that poppy veneer, there's always a triumphant and tragic tale of an oppressed class of androids in the dystopian city of Metropolis.
The tone of her albums is at all times melodramatic like an old silent film, tinged with big band trumpets and semi-creepy male singers crooning in unison. If you start with a picture of Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic, Metropolis, you'll be on the right track as much of Monae's work recalls the fiction of that timeless movie. Except in this case, she herself is the leader of the android people, trying to lead them from oppression.
The story is loosely told through the three current albums (Suites 1-5 of 7) without having a directly recognizable plot. The albums are said to be the eventual soundtracks to a series of films and plays Monae is planning to create in the future, but who knows how serious she is about that.
The basic gist is that Monae is Cindi Mayweather, #57821 in the Alpha Platinum 9000 brand of robotic android that is believed to be The ArchAndroid, a savior of sorts for the synthetic humanoids of Metropolis. The story's got it all: forbidden love, android bounty hunters, uprisings, governments run amok.
And, of course, like any good sci-fi this story isn't being told purely for entertainment. It's highly allegorical, and strongly references the struggles people of color face in today's world.
The latest release, The Electric Lady, is a prequel of sorts to her last album. It takes the focus off the main character, Cindi Mayweather, and refocuses on the people of Metropolis and their attitudes toward the world they inhabit, which closely mirror those of Black Americans in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
On the album there are even two mock-radio interludes where a DJ (DJs played an influential communication role in the Civil Rights Movement) takes calls from average folk in Metropolis from androids to humans and even racists while preaching peace, understanding, and encouraging protest through booty shaking rather than stone throwing.
The Electric Lady
The theme of this album in comparison to her older work seems to be impatience and growing confidence. The allegorical wall that was present in the previous two albums is thinner than ever with some songs seemingly ditching it altogether. This was an album made by someone who is much more comfortable with making a statement, but also perhaps isn't as willing to wait around for you to figure it out on your own.
The song “Ghetto Woman,” for instance, seemingly bears no connection to the overall theme of the Metropolis story at all. It's a wonderful song about the strength of women who endure poverty while being mocked by society at-large, but it nearly comes out of left field thematically.
It's also this song which best displays the uncomfortable merging of the real world with the world of Metropolis that has slowly increased across the three albums as Monae and Cindi Mayweather become closer and closer to the same person. With the worlds melding, it becomes uncomfortable when Monae sings in Ghetto Woman, “All you ever needed was someone to free your mind.” It makes sense within the android-themed storyline of Metropolis, but in the real world it's weird to suggest that a group of humans' minds are unfree.
There are a couple moments on the album where Monae and the Messianic Cindi Mayweather character seem to merge with uncomfortable implications, missteps like that are easy to ignore as overall this album marks a large improvement for Monae as a music-maker.
This is an album about empowerment, dancy beats, and of course: a Jesus-like prototype robotic humanoid hunted by bounty hunters on a quest of deliverance.
Come for the grooves, stay for the sci-fi, and marvel at a young artist who may have just entered her prime.