Janelle Monae’s High-Concept Pop Is Out Of This World

Insurmountable class divides, robotic civil war in the year 2719, love through the barricades, Messianic androids.

These are just some of the broad narrative brushstrokes employed by Janelle Monae on her Chase Suite collection, the second of which, ‘The Arch Android’, is released today (July 12).

As musical concepts go, this one is pretty massive. Following in the lineage of ‘The Wall’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘The Arch Android’ uses the individual’s isolation in a time of society’s transition as its overall theme.

Basing her opus on Fritz Lang’s cinematic benchmark Metropolis and the struggle between The Haves and The Have Nots, the focus is on the part her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, has to play in the civil war which unfolds. The album matches its conceptual ambition with a musical one which takes in baroque classical arrangements, P-Funk, hippy pop and noodly prog.

Monae’s conviction in relating these narrative and musical strands is utterly compelling. In interviews, she speaks of Mayweather in the present tense and as well as more chapters of the suite, there’s talk of a graphic novel and video for each of ‘The Arch Android”s eighteen songs.

In an age where artists are eschewing the traditional album and all its trappings (elaborate sleeves and a sense of overall storytelling), Monae’s elaborate project is as rebellious as it is much needed. That her concept tackles civil unrest in economically uncertain times makes it all the more prescient. As she recently told Rolling Stone, “it represents what we’re all going through”.

Equally compelling is the real story behind Monae, which runs in parallel to this elaborate fantasy. Born into poverty and drug abuse, she used fantasy to fight her way out.

Although notoriously guarded in interviews, her artistic walk to freedom can perhaps be seen via the associative lyrics to ‘Many Moons’: “Hood rat, crack whore…./Outcast, weirdo/Stepchild, freak show/ Black girl, bad hair/Broad nose, cold stare/Tap shoes, Broadway… Record deal, light bulb”.

But this is a reality she’d rather not focus on. Indeed, by casting herself in this future epic and taking artistic cues from Marlene Dietrich and Aldous Huxley, Monae has set herself apart from any pop contemporaries.

That her quiff-and-spats style is a million miles away from other artists’ sexualised style (in ‘Sincerely Jane’ she notes: “Danger/ There’s danger when you take off your clothes/ All your dreams go down the drain”) only adds to her unique appeal.