Artists Of The Year CMU Approved

CMU Artists Of The Year 2013: Janelle Monáe

By | Published on Friday 20 December 2013

Janelle Monae

Each weekday in the run up to the Christmas break, we’ve been revealing our ten favourite artists of the year. To see the full list, check this page. Our final artist is Janelle Monáe…

As well as being the last to feature in this year’s Artists Of The Year rundown, Janelle Monáe is also the first returning artist we’ve ever had in our customary end-of-calendar best artists review, having previously made the list in 2010, the year she released her debut album ‘The ArchAndroid’.

This year she was back again, with a second long playing record (third if you count her debut mini-album ‘Metropolis’) loosely themed on the plight of her android alter ego from the future, Cindi Mayweather, who faces disassembly for falling in love with a human, goes on the run and becomes a figurehead (possibly even messiah) for the android community. At nineteen tracks long (three of them story-furthering interludes), ‘The Electric Lady’ is quite a journey.

Of course, like all the best science fiction, Monáe’s music is not really about robots from the future, its commentary very much based in the human present. The story is a centre point to hang other ideas from, which you can choose to engage with as much or as little as you want. Part of Monáe’s genius is to present music that you can take as a fictional narrative, commentary on issues such as feminism, civil rights, poverty and homophobia, or just a collection of great love songs. If you just want to have fun, she won’t stop you, because at her heart she is a diehard entertainer.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of pitting female musicians against each other, but I think there are a few clear parallels to be drawn between how Janelle Monáe and Lady Gaga present themselves. Both hold tight reigns on their images, with a certain amount of self-mythologising, and both have created organisations in which to work – the Wondaland Arts Society and the Haus Of Gaga respectively.

Both also make bold claims about what they want to achieve with their music, and it’s here that Monáe really pulls ahead – the music she makes is the music she describes beforehand, whereas Gaga talks a good talk but fails to back it up with anything of real substance. The difference, perhaps, is that Gaga lives for the applause, while Monáe wants to give em what they love.

It’s a subtle, but important distinction, and it comes back down to Monáe’s role as an entertainer first, artist second. If the art doesn’t entertain, then it’s not for her. And on ‘The Electric Lady’ she entertains more successfully than ever before. Nineteen tracks the album may have, but none of that is filler. It’s a collection of well-crafted songs matched with perfect production that easily earn regular repeat plays.

Musically, she hasn’t strayed from the R&B sound of ‘The ArchAndroid’, but her second LP holds together more consistently across the course of the whole album. And it sounds timeless. This isn’t a record you’ll be able to immediately place in 2013 in five or ten year’s time, but nor does it sound like pastiche.

I haven’t yet had the chance to see her perform these songs live in person, but TV and YouTube show me that she’s the same infectious ball of energy she was when touring ‘The ArchAndroid’. Also, it looks like she might be getting closer to creating the stage show she didn’t quite have the budget for three years ago.

And best of all, as great as everything she’s done this year has been, it still feels like she has more to give. The marker that has appeared on the covers of her previous two releases shows that there are still two suites to come in the Cindi Mayweather story, and Monáe has talked of films, stage productions and graphic novels in the past too. All of which I’ll happy believe she could pull off with flair.

It’s testament of the quality of ‘The Electric Lady’ that I can come this far in my write-up before mentioning the impressive array of guests on it, including Prince, Solange, Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding. But to close, I’ll leave you with the collaboration that’s stood out the most for me, and my personal favourite track on the album, ‘Primetime’ with Miguel – a song where the rhythm laps underneath you as you lie back into it. Watch the video for the song now: