I’m supposed to be a writer, yet I’m at a loss for words.
I’ll try as best I can to explain what I’ve just experienced. Like most great albums, this one is kind of like a drug-trip. You know you’ve gone to a place unlike any you’ve ever visited before. You were aware of the strange emotions and consciousness expanding effects while you were on the drug, yet when you try to explain it to those who’ve never tried it, words seem to fail. Then again, maybe my feeble brain just can’t put into words a concept that isn’t totally in my grasp even after three listens. I do know that the first time is almost like a sensory overload. You’re not quite sure what to expect, and when you buckle-up and slingshot off into Ms. Monae’s funky yet bizarre universe there are so many sounds, words and colors to take in that another spin is almost essential.
And yes, there are colors.
This is something that she recently mentioned in an interview and I immediately dismissed as sounding artsy and pretentious. Now after taking the trip a few times I couldn’t give you a better description myself. What she (and her all-star production team) have put together is a spectrum of sound — packed and arranged perfectly into a masterfully composed (debut) full-length body of work. Co-executive producer Nate “Rocket” Wonder utilizes every kind of live instrumentation imaginable to provide Monae with the sonic playground that a brilliant musical mind like hers needs to fully explore the extent of her talents. Everything from full orchestral arrangements to xylophones, synthesizers and electric guitars projects the feel of some sort of shroomed-out, funkadelic broadway show. These lush sonic choices — coupled with song titles like “Mushrooms and Roses” and “Wondaland” — seem to purposefully call to mind the imaginative world of Lewis Carroll. And once you’ve plunged down the rabbit hole, there’s no preparation for the new and wonderful things you’ll encounter on the other side.
The album opens with an overture for Suite II, the second musical movement in her epic “Cindi Mayweather” concept series that launched with her 2007 EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Next we’re catapulted right into the irresistible Latin-fused energy of “Dance Or Die,” featuring the spoken word of poet extraordinaire Saul Williams. Janelle even chooses to go (even more so than usual) into left field, taking an apparent cue from Andre 3000 and pseudo-spitting some spiritually uplifting rhymes.
From here the energy gradually begins to taper off into the jazzy bounce of “Faster” followed by the hypnotically thumping, slightly slower-paced “Locked Inside”. This energy decline should be expected when the most kinetically-charged song happens to be sequenced first. It isn’t a bad thing though, because once you’re bewitched by Jane’s spell, it’s damn near impossible to pull away. Unfortunately, the ol’ drug-trip analogy is once again the best tool I can use to describe the overall tone of this project. This is probably due to the fact that there isn’t exactly ONE overall tone. It’s more like a swirling, shifting kaleidoscope of tones. There are moments of pure mind-bendingly blissful truth… and there are moments that have you wondering what-in-the-hell you’re doing exploring this weird and scary place.
For example, the sweet and contemplative “Oh Maker” gives way to the bluesy yet unsettling funk-metal energy of “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”, on which Janelle gives the best vocal electric guitar impersonation I’ve heard since Clare Torry’s famous contribution to Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.”
Yea, did I mention the fact that this chick has a set of pipes that could blast the paint job off an oil tanker?
What’s even more impressive than her raw power is her almost superhuman versatility. She leaps effortlessly from squeaky staccato into to soulful midrange. She’ll channel traditional broadway chops on one track, only to shoot off into a screeching punkish wail on the next. And when you have a wonderland of instrumentation and a cabal of creative minds to back it all up, it’s only logical to consider the possibility that you’ve got a modern-day classic on your hands.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just spewing platitudes because I bought into the hype (and trust me, there was a lot of it). I gave the album 5 stars not just because of its infectious innovation, but because of its musical importance. No matter what your tastes may be, The ArchAndroid warrants a listen. Go experience this genre-defying masterpiece for yourselves, but please don’t do it through a crappy pair of 2 cent earbuds like I did (the first time). Either allow this the dignity of being played through a quality sound system or go invest in a pair of Beats by Dres. This is far less an album than a cinematic experience.
Fix a drink, lay back, take the ride.