The previous two ‘suites’ – which took the form of “The ArchAndroid” – were awarded a classic rating on this very site, and pretty much universally. While Janelle Monae didn’t become a household name on the back of that album, the amount of love she received for that slow-burning success has held her in good stead (to put it lightly). For my money, that album is up there with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” – albeit in a very different way, and without the commercial success Hill eventually crumbled under. “The Electric Lady” follows on in an incredibly polarising manner – even within the album itself – effectively simultaneously copying and ripping up the formula. It’s a very good album indeed, yet by Monae’s standards feels concessionary.
Maybe it is cynicism, but just one look at the tracklisting hints at a more conservative label-driven ethos: front-load the LP with big name guests on singles to hook in the casuals and get the sales up. In fact, the first four songs are all collaborations, with Monae only rocking TWO full solo efforts in the first NINE numbers. The open invite list results in a very different vibe to its predecessor – more powerful, a statement of intent (even the gun slinging instrumental intro suggests this), yet almost certainly more impersonal. With “The ArchAndroid” we felt a part of it all, as if we were witnessing a musical at the theatre. “The Electric Lady” is more like watching her on-screen at the cinema. There’s much back-and-forth between Monae and her guests, with arguably Solange on the title track the only cordial moment on offer. Prince is laser-focused on “Givin Em What They Love” (practically a mission statement for the album), and the melodies run riot once more on “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu and an almost Lauryn-esque rap breakdown (one of the couplets pays homage).
“Electric Lady” has a very “Umbrella” feel to it, a moment of breezy pop that works remarkably well, and after an all new radio station skit (that is integral to the whole Android storyline), the wonderful “Primetime” creeps into play. It’s a 1980s style R&B duet, features Miguel and simply soars (sorry to refer to it AGAIN, but it brings to mind a more energetic version of Lauryn’s duet with D’Angelo, “Nothing Even Matters”). After that, we get back to the more familiar Janelle Monae sound: her alone, a smorgasbord of genres, and more ethereal themes. “Dance Apocalyptic” is the natural successor to “Tightrope” and feels good-to-go for some electronics manufacturer to use in their advertising campaign.
Suite V is, at times, a cherry-picking of Suites III and IV. “Ghetto Woman” feels like a sped up and more in-your-face “Wondaland”; “It’s Code” harkens back to “Oh, Maker”. “Victory” (oh, FFS) recalls “To Zion” and is one of the few examples of Monae just going hell for leather, singing her lungs out. Out of the closing stretch, “What an Experience” is a dreamy, gorgeous one and a lovely note to end on; “Sally Ride” and, to a lesser extent, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” are more necessary to the story than the experience. “The ArchAndroid” was one or two songs too long, depending on your preferences, and “The Electric Lady” probably falls victim to that trap too. They certain feel far removed from the steamrollering first third of the album.
By Janelle Monae’s lofty standards, this is still very good, but not quite as great as her previous offering. Yet, it will probably get her further along the road to stardom, and it provides an interesting set up for the final two suites (which will probably take another two to three years to arrive). She felt almost superhuman before, but ironically even though this probably takes her down a peg or two, it subsequently making her easier to identify with. She’s not a bionic superwoman or a droid: she’s just another artist, albeit one that trades in irony, honesty and theatre – frequently at the same time. She’s just become a bit more conventional this time around, and ultimately we may not fully know how successful “The Electric Lady” actually is until the next album arrives.