Published Sep 18, 2013Janelle Monáe is an android. An extended phone chat with the 27-year-old hinges on the (swiftly grasped) understanding that Monáe is not distant for the sake of being distant: it's just that her persona is hermetically sealed.
The tenor of the conversation with the singer-songwriter, producer and visual artist is considerate but clinical. It's a good thing her emotion chip appears to be in working order — she's "anxious" and "so excited" regarding the launch of highly anticipated sophomore LP The Electric Lady. But Monáe is self-regulating when it comes to divulging data; standard probes regarding how long The Electric Lady took to create ("I don't know") or how much ultimate control she has over her image ("What do you think?") are deflected; they do not compute and/or are not deemed relevant to the musical missive at hand.
To Monáe, The Electric Lady is more than a new album, it's a self-evident manifesto — of love, politics, religion and sexuality — sketched out in her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and expanded upon in 2010 breakout The ArchAndroid. It is epic R&B/pop parsed out in seven conceptual Metropolis-inspired Suites (of which The Electric Lady represents parts IV and V) spinning the tale of android alter ego Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 — proactive intermediary for universal love and a freedom fighter against the mechanisms of humanistic oppression.
Holding to this heady narrative, any related background context — outside of Metropolis — is disseminated in predetermined, prefab bits and bites. She's adamant about maintaining a reinforcing feedback loop where she owns the message in the course of architecting an immersive musical world (via her label and Wondaland Arts Society collective) according to her own automatic, idiosyncratic behaviour. Beyond the trademarked tuxedo suits, the signature pompadour updo, and the mainstream single successes (the commercial ubiquity of "Tightrope," the winning turn on the fun. smash "We Are Young"), Monáe lives in a cybernetic jurisdiction of her own making, completely in control as a black female artist.
Speaking to Monáe about her life at this particular juncture orbits around The Electric Lady — a title inspired by one of her paintings — purely from the perspective of its planned impact: "I've had a great time working on the album. I had a great time producing the album. It was hard to ensure we had an album that people could be inspired by, empowered by, nurtured by."
Her origin story begins in Kansas City, Kansas, as a human child named Janelle Monáe Robinson. It's a tale she agrees virtually fits into an upgraded L. Frank Baum narrative: a wide-eyed digital Dorothy exploring a postmodern Oz. Like Dorothy, for Janelle Robinson Kansas was about navigating a path to autonomy, about growing up relatively poor, being hyper-self-aware of her obstacles and disparities in her neighbourhood and wanting more. It's where Monáe learned an appreciation for the blue collar, uniformed trades — her father drove a garbage truck while her mother cleaned buildings — today reflected in the omnipresent tuxedos, a symbol of both service and exclusivity. It's a life where her father succumbed to drugs for a period before ultimately overcoming — "My father is doing amazing now. He's so good. He's a totally different person," she says — and where she was sent off to stay with grandparents for periods of time, where she would listen to Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker records.
"I grew up in a jazz environment: blues and gospel. My father's side was musically-inclined; both my great grandparents played the organ. I was deeply rooted in those elements in my childhood. But I think that I've always dealt with making sure you're dealing with the highs and lows of life in a very responsible way. And making sure that I could create music, music to make me laugh and cry, pick you up when you're down. Music is inspiring, so that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people, who are struggling with addiction, or struggling with depression," she offers. "That makes me want to create more music, music that makes a positive impact on lives."
Pursuing this dream initiated a whirlwind of movement: a pre-teen Monáe being driven by her mother to talent shows; splitting to New York for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy as a drama major after high school; transitioning to Philadelphia's African-American performing arts school Freedom Theatre; and ultimately landing in Atlanta, GA circa 2001 – living in a boarding house on Parsons Street. – ever determined to make it in the music industry. "Got fired from my job — I wrote a song about it," she says. "Jobless or not, I had to be unafraid. I didn't want to work for anybody else."
Immersing herself in the Atlanta arts community had two lasting benefits: connecting with young like-minded performers and musicians who would become the core of her Wondaland Arts Society movement; and a fateful meeting with Big Boi, of seminal Deep South rap duo, OutKast, during an open mic performance. It was Boi who connected her to Sean "Diddy" Combs, who became enamoured with her MySpace recordings and signed her to his Bad Boy label, resulting in 2003's underappreciated The Audition EP, a self-created demo from her boarding house days. When the time came for moderately successful Afro-futuristic "mini-album" Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) in 2007, it was under her own self-created record label.
Her Wondaland collective and record imprint represent a proclaimed "hippie outer space," a Native Tongues-like cultural space of genre-bending musicians, artists, actors and writers beholden to bleeding-edge, cosmic funk artistry by way of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic. Standing a dozen or so strong — the crew evoke a burgeoning Harlem Renaissance atmosphere, a society of artists like Nate "Rocket" Wonder, funk duo Deep Cotton and soul impresario Roman GianArthur who form the creative backbone of the album vision. "I love the team that I work with. We stay collaborating with this album and we had a great time. You get inspired working with so many talented musicians."
The notoriously micromanaging, megalomaniacal Diddy is reportedly hands-off with Monáe. "She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel," is more than just a lyric from Electric Lady single "Q.U.E.E.N.," it's the only way Monáe operates.
"Puffy helped me with the distribution deal," she says. "Just so many people helped me to get to the place were I am. That happened in the Wizard of Oz — Dorothy met all these characters that helped. I think that my life is very similar to hers in the people who have helped me along the way."
At this point, the transformation was complete: Monáe as Mayweather, Mayweather is Monáe. It's her avatar, a virtual conduit through which her mind-bending music makes sense experientially, as followers engage and better understand her worldview. By extension, The Electric Lady is steeped in futurist funk, jazz, black punk psychedelia and layered in themes inspired by speculative and forward-thinking sci-fi works of authors Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov and Ray Kurzweil. As conceived by Monáe, it's a conceptual exercise in world-building influenced by Fritz Lang's 1927 cinematic sci-fi silent film epic Metropolis, itself rife with occult symbolism and futurist imagery surrounding the real world hazards of social and economic disparities. Monáe has committed to this transformative bionic worldview, an allegorical space where android androgyny serves as a mechanical messiah, the voice for the voiceless, the digital saviour of the analogue oppressed. The project is an ambitious and challenging initiative, one that pushes boundaries both from a musical genre and cultural standpoint.
Texturally, it is rooted in R&B music, but not in the vein of what currently infiltrates airwaves, she says. Its 19 tracks, like "Dance Apocalyptic," "We Were Rock and Roll," "Look Into My Eyes," and "Ghetto Woman" run the musical gamut, keeping listeners off-kilter with a dazzling genre diversity held together under a futurist R&B rubric. "We wanted to create something very special in The Electric Lady. I want to say rooted in R&B music, but I did not want to marginalize or contribute to the marginalization that I see happening in R&B music." She posits that mainstream R&B requires a more corrective course, one that gives long overdue shout-outs to black music pioneers like Bo Diddley and Little Richard, that is more reverent to R&B/soul history while still looking to the future. Through the lens of her android avatar, she explains that The Electric Lady is about how R&B culture has inspired rock'n'roll, funk and even classical music. "I wanted to make sure that the diversity and the unique aspects of R&B [were there] — and making sure that we were doing music history on this album."
Monáe's mission is parallel to Neo from The Matrix. "I'm someone who's figuring out that I have a power within me, and I can do something brave, big and bold. And not be unafraid to say things and talk about issues that are affecting the community. The android represents something different for me. It represents the 'other,' a new form of being. She's the chosen one, like myself. She's in my DNA, to uplift the community and not back down from responsibility," she says.
"I had the chance to work with some amazing artists on this project," she adds, listing black music dignitaries such as Erykah Badu, Solange Knowles, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding — a who's who of the contemporary wave of soul music. She makes special note of Prince, who is reportedly a long-time fan, and who made the exceptionally rare decision to appear on an album not his own.
"He does not collaborate often," she says, conceding that the Purple One's appearance represents more than just a coup. "I'm humble, thankful, honoured. I had the chance to work with one of my musical heroes. Not only did we collaborate, I got a chance to produce and take a leadership role in making sure it happened."
As an android and a sci-fi thinker, a major tenet is sexual self-actualization. Her own sexuality is an issue she rarely broaches — she never discloses who she's dating or her orientation — outside her music. Through the androgynous uniform — tuxedos and Oxfords — she challenges hetero-normativity and the gender binary; through the music, she's a proponent of the predictability of "robot love," preferentially "two androids and a cyborg" as she recently said in an interview. Even though she recently told a UK tabloid she would reveal her true orientation "in due time," trying to decipher her sexual preferences and entendres might ultimately be missing the point. "It's talking about everything from sexuality, community, love," she says of The Electric Lady. "There are clever messages in it. It's whatever message speaks to you. I encourage you to be the highest being that you can be. That's the message."
This is the cosmic leitmotif that defines Monáe as Mayweather. Trans-humanist and post-gender themes proliferate in her lyrics — "Dance Apocalyptic" features orgasmically suggestive lines as "exploding in the bathroom stall"; in a skit interlude, a character proclaims "Robot love is queer." The message rings clear on a track like "Q.U.E.E.N.," featuring Badu. "It's an answer for the underdog. The woman too has been marginalized for a while. Society puts all these restraints on women and their individuality. This song was very important. Badu and I creating something for the community that really challenges. It's a song for people who may feel marginalized, whether you're queer, an immigrant, a droid, or other."
While positioning herself as a champion, she's hesitant to call herself a role model ("that's up to the people to say") but she's accepted the burden. It's not about living vicariously, but rather about self-empowerment. This includes increased pop culture exposure, gracing fashion magazine covers and being a spokesperson for cosmetics brand giant CoverGirl. "I'm honoured and humbled that they even thought of me," she says. "It's showing the diversity of beauty."
For Monáe, whether or not the otherworldly, high-concept album is a hit (spoiler alert: it will be), she's already planning the next move. Her Wondaland associates are working on their own official debuts, all under the collaborative Monáe influence.
"I've accepted the responsibility of moving my community forward. I'm making sure that I'm making quality music and making quality shows, and staying true to innovation and positive ideas. I define success when people say that their lives have been changed. I'm trying to love more, I'm trying to unite more, and I'm trying to move my community forward. I [want to] get a million more Electric Ladies, women who will go out into their communities and share and be the change that we want to be, the love we want to be."
One last query for the android: what does she do for fun, when she's not being Janelle Monáe, and just being Janelle Robinson?
"I'm always Janelle Monáe. That's my name — my purpose. My job is never done."