The sci-fi soul maverick’s second album can’t match her debut for ambition, but it’s still fiercely entertaining
Last year, Janelle Monáe sang on a Grammy Award-winning Number One hit. It remains her most high-profile moment, but also her least impressive one. That’s partly because she’s only on Fun’s ‘We Are Young’ for 20 seconds, but also because the song itself – a clumsy power ballad by a bunch of arena-rock numpties – is much less exciting than Monáe’s own music.
The Kansas City singer’s 2010 debut album ‘The ArchAndroid’ was an ambitious mix of funk, soul and psychedelic pop that stretched over 68 minutes and featured a storyline about a messianic robot called Cindi Mayweather. It got great reviews and sold OK, though the brilliant single ‘Tightrope’ never quite became the mainstream crossover hit Monáe deserved.
After such an audacious debut, follow-up ‘The Electric Lady’ feels more like a continuation than a great leap forward. Like its predecessor, it’s a lengthy LP divided into two ‘suites’, and there’s more Cindi Mayweather stuff if you look for it, but its prevailing themes are more relatable than Monáe’s elaborate persona suggests: she mostly sings about love, female empowerment and dancing – lead single ‘QUEEN’ even features an on-trend reference to twerking.
The album’s first half is fantastic. ‘QUEEN’, featuring Erykah Badu, and the Prince-assisted ‘Givin’ Em What They Love’ are sharp, shimmering funk nuggets; ‘Electric Lady’ and ‘We Were Rock & Roll’ pack killer choruses; and ‘PrimeTime’, a sexy duet with Miguel, manages to be spare and epic at the same time – a bit like Cyndi Lauper’s prom classic ‘Time After Time’. Some may sneer at ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ for sounding like a cross between Jack Johnson and The Jackson 5, but their toes will be tapping as their noses wrinkle up.
The album’s second ‘suite’ is mellower and less consistent. ‘Can’t Live Without Your Love’ is gorgeously sulky, while closer ‘What An Experience’ is seemingly influenced by Foreigner’s ’80s power ballad ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, which means it’s as cheesily irresistible as leftover pizza on a hungover Sunday morning. But while slowies like ‘Victory’ and ‘It’s Code’ show off her soulful vocals, Monáe’s ballads aren’t always as compelling as her uptempo tracks.
Still, this is a problem that can blight even R&B superstars like Beyoncé. It’s not enough to prevent this album from being another entertaining showcase for Monáe’s many gifts. And this electric lady nails her unique appeal on the title track when she sings: “You got a classy kind of crazy, but you know just who you are”.