CMU Artists Of The Year 2010 – #2: Janelle Monáe

Of all the artists in our Artists Of The Year rundown, Janelle Monáe is the only one I’ve actually seen paint. Not that this has pushed her further up the chart, you understand. Actually, she wasn’t particularly good at it, if I’m honest. No, she’s at number two in this list because both on record and live she is exceptional.

A protégé of Outkast’s Big Boi, Monáe released her debut single in 2005 and appeared on Outkast’s ‘Idlewild’ album the following year. It was after this that Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs personally signed her to his Bad Boy Entertainment label. To his credit, he also recognised her as a long term artist, and rather than lining her up with a quick hit single, allowed her to develop at her own pace.

Her debut EP, ‘Metropolis: The Chase Suite’, was released in 2007 and formed the first part of a messiah story that stars her as female android Cindi Mayweather in the year 2719. Influenced by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film ‘Metropolis’, the second and third parts of the story make up Monáe’s debut album, ‘The ArchAndroid’, which was released in July this year. Here Mayweather realises she is the ArchAndroid who will free the android community from the Great Divide, a secret society using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages.

I fear I may be losing some of you now. It’s okay, this isn’t some overblown high concept prog album; it’s a great pop record with a loose theme tying it together. Over eighteen tracks and 70 minutes, Monáe and her assembled collaborators – who include Big Boi, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes and Saul Williams – bring together and endless array of smart ideas and brilliant songs.

Musically she draws upon numerous sources, with a distinct mix of old Motown, James Brown and late 70s Michael Jackson in there. But while many of her influences may be apparent, she stamps her own mark firmly on the lot of it. ‘Cold War’, the second single from the album stands out particularly and stretches the power of her voice furthest. ‘Faster’, ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Wondaland’ also show off different areas of her immense talent as well as the diversity of the album.

But with such an ambitious recording, with a great deal of vocal gymnastics and additional musicians, not to mention the visual style that accompanies it all, comes the challenge of translating it all into a compelling live show. This could so easily be her undoing, but thankfully Monáe more than delivers here, too.

I finally got to see her perform live earlier this month at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Having heard that her show is excellent, I went in with high expectations. I know that’s never a good idea, but she completely exceeded them all. Although the show may not yet have quite the budget she needs to fully realise her ambitions for it, it’s nonetheless a highly choreographed performance, kicked off with a video introduction of the album’s concept and, most importantly, the announcement that we all need to “dance or die”. It also included that previously mentioned attempt at painting.

And with the amount of energy she throws into her performance, the flawless vocals that pour out of her mouth and her gravity-defying hair, you could believe she really is an android from the 28th century.

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