FOUR EASY STEPS “I learned about myself, I activated my superpowers, I got comfortable with what makes me unique, and I became fearless.”
For my final trick here at the Phoenix (and may I thank you for letting me serve you these past couple of years), I’m going to try to talk about Janelle Monáe. You’d think this would be easy, given that ever since she lit up The Late Show with David Letterman May 18 with a roof-blowing performance of her single “Tightrope,” she seems to be everywhere but my Wheaties box. But it’s hard to talk about Janelle Monáe when your jaw’s fallen off.
It’s also just hard to talk about Janelle Monáe, period. My first reaction to her Letterman performance was a yelp to the effect that she made Sharon Jones sound like an old lady — which was a wrong and stupid thing to yelp, so I’m sorry, Ms. Jones. My second reaction was to stare transfixed as Monáe — in a tight tux and spiffy two-tone bowling shoes — slid across the stage on one foot as a blast of horns lifted her toward the song’s screen-cracking climax. My third reaction was to find The ArchAndroid (her debut on Atlantic/Wondaland). Since then, I’ve had about 10,000 more reactions — and none of them lines up. Any of the funk-revivalist expectations set up by “Tightrope” were left behind on Earth by the conclusion of the album’s overture, and it just got crazier from there.
When I get Monáe on the phone, she’s “sitting in a tunnel, drinking tea and watching rats dance.” She’s likely also still in a tux — such is the mode of her Wondaland Arts Society brethren — and preparing for a month-long tour with Erykah Badu that hits the Orpheum next Sunday. When I ask about the year and a half it took to track TheArchAndroid, we speak less about its recording than about its vision: comprising the middle two suites of a four-part work to be called Metropolis (the first suite earned her a 2009 Grammy nomination for “Many Moons”), TheArchAndroid is the continuing saga of Cindi Mayweather, a figure who splits time between being Monáe’s muse and being her alter ego.
“I speak about the androids because I can connect to the androids,” she tells me. “With this album, we wanted to create an ‘emotion picture’ — I wanted to evoke feelings that a lot of us haven’t felt in a while.” Although she might perceive herself as an android struggling to plumb the emotional vastness of humanity, I prefer to think of her as some unknowably funky messiah with amazing hair sent to redeem a world stuck caring about Lady Gaga.
The cinematic suggestions of Monáe’s vision hold up through the 18-track sprawl of TheArchAndroid — and “Tightrope” is only the chase scene. The rest of it is a continuously expanding sonic universe that shapeshifts among slick, danceable R&B (“Locked Inside”), wistful girl-group stargazing (“Sir Greendown”), ’60s pop and hip-hop (“Oh, Maker”), and sticky-bud psych with streaks of fuzz guitar (“Mushrooms and Roses”). Amid all the time-traveling flourishes and orchestral sweep, Monáe’s voice is the brightest star — agile, inventive, and strong, it twinkles fiercely over the still waters of “Say You’ll Go” (which borrows keenly from Debussy’s “Clair de lune”).