Stumbling Upon Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland (Or I got a terrible fixation on ArchAndroid…can’t get it off my mind…)

I have a confession to make. I’m not a big fan of black music.

This is not to say that I don’t listen to it. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by Sister Sledge and Tina Turner from my dad, and lots of gospel music like the Winans from my mom. We listened to Chicago black stations like WGCI and before it went away, WYCA. But even when I was a child, you get me alone with a radio and I broadened my listening repertoire to Light FM, classical music, orchestra, and one strange stint when I listened to country. When I hit my teens, I pretty much stuck with Christian music, because it was safe and, well, Christian. And then I hit college, where Pink Floyd was (literally) forced upon me, and I left most of black music behind as I dove into .

Not all of it. I latched onto Arrested Development hard when they came out with “Tennessee”. I briefly flirted with PM Dawn, and when India.Arie hit the airwaves, I sucked up as many CDs of hers as I could. I wanted desperately to like Erykah Badu, but couldn’t get pass all her swearing (now, to show my hypocritical side, I fell in love with Ben Folds enough to get two of his CDs. I just ignored all the swearing he did.) I wasn’t into rap enough to like Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keyes felt too…dramatic.  Of course, my dark dangerous secret: I like Prince. Love, love, love Prince. Even some of his raunchy stuff. But other than that, I became was picky on which black artist I listened to. 

Enter Janelle Monáe.

I first heard of Monáe on the Paste website, which paired two topics I never saw before: "science fiction" and "black female artist". I like science fiction. I’m all for black female artists, even though I rarely listened to them. And I studied the pompadour, tuxedo clad Monáe and thought, "hmmm…this is…different."

And then I watched her video, "Many Moons" from her Metropolis CD.

I watched it again…and again…and again…and that’s how I learned the story of Cyndi Mayweather, Wondaland, and a new genre I’ve never heard before, "afropunk".

Listening to Janelle Monáe is an audio-cinematic experience. Between her two CDs Metropolis and ArchAndroid, Monáe tells the story of Cyndi Mayweather, a cyborg living in the year 3005. Cyndi’s plight is laid out on the opening track of Metropolis, accompanied by appropriate marching music: she’s committed the sin of falling in love with a human millionaire, Anthony Greendown, and is now on the run for her life. The story is scattered throughout the both CDs, both in the music tracks and the linear notes: from what I can make it, Cyndi Mayweather runs, gets captured, then somehow, while being held prisoner, learns that she may be the Prophesied One who will bring peace and unity to the world.

The best thing about her music is that it breaks genre barriers. Yes, we got the dance (Dance or Die, Many Moons) and R&B (Mr. President) and soul (Locked Inside), but then she does an about face and waltzes into a 1950s crooning ballad (Sir Greendown). From there she crowd-dives into a punk rock screamfest (Come Alive), trips into 60s psychedelica (Mushrooms and Roses), slams through glam rock (Make the Bus—my favorite song on the CD), and tosses in sweeping orchestral numbers that invoke 1950s film noir (Say You’ll Go, BebopbyeYa). She brings in the Punk Prophets a.k.a Deep Cotton to sing 3-part harmony with her on 57821, a song with such a baroque classical  hymn feel to it that it made me weep in sheer joy. (well, okay, I didn’t weep, but the first time I heard it, I stopped whatever I was doing and just stood there listening with my mouth dropped open. Not a lot of music do that to me nowadays.)

Her vocal range is so awesome. She flows effortlessly from a hip-hop diva a screaming manic, her voice evoking Charleston-dancing flappers from the 20s in one song (Faster), to a high-pitched Kate Bush bubblegum doll in another (Wondaland).  In Neon Valley Street, there’s a note she does that’s so soulful, just one note. I am fully convinced that in a studio somewhere, Anita Baker is standing at a microphone with her mouth opened and a weird expression on her face, wondering why the note she’s supposed to sing isn’t coming out her mouth. 

And the influences! Take a sip of ArchAndroid, and you can taste the clear notes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, David Bowie, Fleet Foxes.  In fact, I’m certain there’s even a little XTC influence there (Yes, I’m looking at you, Of Montreal. Don’t think I didn’t recognize that little two-note bass in Make the Bus. I know those two notes are really Colin Moulding’s.  I know.)

And the crazy thing about all this genre-flipping is that Monáe makes it all work.  Well, not just her. The neat thing about this CD is that it gives you tastes of not just other genres, but other bands as well. I’ve never heard of Of Montreal and Deep Cotton before, but I’m deeply interested in their work now. And her guitarist, Kalindo (or as it’s said in Cold War: KALLLLINDOOOOOOOOOOOO!), wow, wow, wow, wow. Here is Jimi Hendrix’s legacy, right here. Right here.

This is just the beginning. Monáe plans to release more videos, make a graphic novel, and do Suite IV of Cyndi Mayweather’s story. Mainstream people love her, sci-fi geeks love her, and Prince appears to find her pleasing as well. Here’s to hoping that Janelle Monáe i.e. Cindy Mayweather truly is The One that will unite everyone together. And I so can’t wait for Suite IV. If only there was a time machine I can use to go forward…no, wait. that would be a bad idea. If I had a time machine, I would use it to go back in time, get my college self, and say, "You gotta come with me. They got AFROPUNK IN THE FUTURE!!!"

Then my past self would be all, "Holy crap, are those dreads you’re wearing?!?!"

And since it now appears that I have no clue what I’m writing anymore, let’s put on our saddle shoes and tip the Tightrope ONE MORE TIME!!!