Where To Start With... Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe cuts a unique figure on the musical landscape. Often dressed in a tuxedo with an immaculately sculpted hairdo, her appearance is as difficult to ascribe to any particular musical 'scene' as her musical output itself, a genre-defying blend of psychedelic soul, hip-hop, punk-pop and R&B that owes as much to science-fiction as it does to musical influences such as Prince, Grace Jones, James Brown and Stevie Wonder.
Born in Kansas City in the mid-1980s to a janitor mother and truck driver father, Monáe was an early self-starter who, by the age of 17, had already founded her own record label, Wondaland Arts Society, and self-released a limited-run debut 'album' The Audition. A move to Atlanta, Georgia saw her catch the eye of Outkast's Big Boi, who invited her to collaborate on their 2006 album Idlewild, to which she contributes vocals on two songs, and brought her to the attention of Sean 'Diddy' Combs. Impressed by the unique way she looked and sounded, Combs signed her up to his Bad Boy Entertainment management agency, whose primary aim was increasing her exposure rather than the usual artist development because, as Bad Boy's head of A&R Daniel Mitchell put it: “she was already moving, she already had her records – she had a self-contained movement”.
Monáe also had a clear - if somewhat unusual - artistic vision, and it's a measure of just how much confidence Combs and others had in her ability that she has been allowed the space to deliver it with a minimum of interference. Her 2007 debut EP Metropolis forms the first part of what is intended to be a seven-part conceptual series inspired by Fritz Lange's 1927 film of the same name, following the exploits of Monáe's alter-ego Cindi Mayweather. A time-travelling android from the year 2719, Cindi is sentenced to disassembly when she falls in love with a human, reappearing on Monáe's 2010 debut album The ArchAndroid as a messianic figure, and again on its 2013 follow-up The Electric Lady, where Cindi and her 'five sisters' feature on the album's cover.
It's difficult to overstate just how ballsy a move this really is, and how difficult it is to execute. If a new artist announced that they intended their debut to be a concept album based on a German silent film from the 1920s it'd probably be enough to give even the most forward-thinking record label the jitters; to continue that concept over two or three albums might seem like insanity. But here's the thing; Janelle Monáe makes it work and not only has she carried the idea through two albums, several years and a whole range of musical styles, in doing so she has created an allegorical story about the divided nature of society along the lines of class, race and sexuality that feels both relevant and timeless, picking up a handful of Grammy nominations in the process.
Her talents don't end there either; in recent years she has branched out into acting and delivered outstanding performances in films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures, all the while developing an impressive roster of up-and-coming talent for her record label. It is with more than a little intrigue, then, that we've been anticipating the arrival of her third album.
Announced in February, Dirty Computer arrives this week and features the recent singles 'Django Jane', 'Pynk' and 'Make Me Feel', the latter featuring a synth line created by none other than Prince, who was reportedly working with Monáe on the album before he died. Other contributors to the album include Grimes, who guests on 'Pynk', and Pharrell Williams, who appears on 'I Got The Juice', while the title track features an appearance from Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson. There are also production credits for Mattman & Robin and Wondaland production duo Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder.
Exactly where Cindi fits in this time around remains to be seen, but you can find the video for 'Django Jane' below and beneath that we've picked out five of Janelle Monáe's best moments so far as a guide for those who are new to her work...
Arguably the highlight of her Metropolis EP, 'Many Moons' came with an epic video that set the stage for Monáe's high concept visual presentations. Musically speaking, Outkast's influence is evident on the song's frenetic groove and while the lyrics might be particular to Cindi's story, they're easily relatable for anyone who has experienced the drudgery of working life.
'Dance or Die'
We could have picked one of the singles as our first choice from her debut album The ArchAndroid, but 'Dance or Die' is as good as anything on the album with shuffling rhythm and a guest appearance from the excellent Saul Williams seals the deal for us.
Probably the best-known song from her debut album, 'Tightrope' is an infectious tune delivered alongside a video set in an Asylum where dancing of any kind has been outlawed and considered a sign of mental illness, so obviously Monáe depicts herself as a patient and throws some moves in the corridors....
Taken from sophomore album The Electric Lady, 'Q.U.E.E.N.' features a guest appearance from the similarly idiosyncratic Erykah Badu, with both delivering vocals over a stuttering guitar sample, accompanied by a video that depicts them both as time-travelling rebels captured and displayed as an exhibition in a futuristic museum.
Our final pick is this cut from The Electric Lady that's one of the most upbeat and carefree moments on an album that encompasses almost every style of music you could think of – despite featuring a lyric that's literally about the end of the world.