Maybe the harshest post I’ve ever written on this blog was about Janelle Monae’s song “Django Jane.” With some of my negative posts, my tone becomes sort of like a calmer version of that Tyra Banks “WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU” clip, where I’m deeply disappointed in an artist who I know is capable of much better. In Monae’s case, the context for my criticism of her came from loving her first album, The Archandroid, and being frustrated at her taking what I perceived to be an easy, much less imaginative career arc. The album recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and it’s worth looking back on what makes it such an enduring work to me, regardless of what came after.
I consider The Archandroid to be a commercial pop anomaly — an album for the masses that actually embraced the most powerful feelings music can conjure. The reason I don’t really like most heavily played pop isn’t that it’s popular; it’s that it feels generic and lacks anything that sparks the imagination. That’s why it was so refreshing and exciting to hear this album that strived to do more than just be some empty social/personal commentary. Monae embraced a wide swath of influences and actually told a story in her music, about an android named Cindy Mayweather who became a vessel for themes of afro-futurism, identity, cyborg feminism, and other heady topics. Also inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the album has a cinematic feel with its opening overture, its sprawling storytelling, and Monae’s performance, which was like an absurdly talented theater kid unleashing as many big ideas as she could.
The feeling I get listening to The Archandroid is that Monae was too unjaded and new to the industry to know that she wasn’t supposed to try to do all of this stuff in an album that had commercial aspirations. I don’t know why it is, but there’s an uncomfortable reality that black artists get boxed into performing fairly narrow genres and styles. Monae was on a mission to break that pattern, and part of this album’s charm is hearing Monae try to do everything, especially on the back half of the album which is one wild swing after another. You basically get to hear Monae’s take on every genre of music that has ever interested her: “Mushrooms and Roses” is trippy psychedelic rock with some strings, “Wondaland” is electropop, “57821” is quiet folk, “Come Alive (War on the Roses)” is her take on punk. “Make the Bus,” written by Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, is an absolute atrocity of a song, but it’s sort of charming because its borne out of the same manic ambition that defines the whole album. It wouldn’t feel as dangerous or crazy if every single risk paid off.
To some listeners, the stylistic hodge-podge probably made the album feel inconsistent or overstuffed. But every song sounding different gave the album its distinct picaresque structure, where each track felt like a different self-contained adventure in a fantastical, diverse setting. The Archandroid actually transported me to a different time and place, offering the kind of immersion I love in music and art in general. While most of the comparisons centered around similar-sounding artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, and David Bowie, the spirit of this album reminded me of my favorite quirky art rock classics: Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Bjork’s Post and Homogenic, and Helium’s The Magic City.
That’s probably why I’ve always felt like I viewed this album (and Monae’s career in general) through a different lens than most of her fans and other writers. I consider “Tightrope,” the most acclaimed and popular song on this album, to be easily its low point because it didn’t have that creative energy running through it. It’s the only song on this album that felt solely designed to be popular, and it includes an unwelcome interlude from Big Boi, who breaks the immersion in the storytelling with a lame rap that rhymes “asscrack” and “NASDAQ.” “Cold War” is the much better “normal song” of the album; it’s upbeat with a big chorus, and it merges Cindy Mayweather’s story and her own with lyrics about being an oppressed outsider. That was a key to the entire construction of this album: grounding these themes in semi-autobiographical fiction made all of it resonate more because there was a story being told with dramatic rises and falls in the action.
It was such an obvious star-making moment for Monae, and at the time I think everyone knew she was going to be a big deal. Unfortunately, her career has gone mostly how I feared it might: the fame got to her head, she started collaborating with a bunch of pop bigwigs, and she began making music that was more suited for the radio and winning Grammys but didn’t have a fraction of the inspiring ambition she showed here. The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer mostly sounded like Prince knock-offs to me, and the Cindy Mayweather character eventually got pushed aside in favor of obvious lyrics that had the stock empowerment themes that every pop artist apparently is obligated to do now. Combined with her ventures into Hollywood, Monae is having a lot of success, but I don’t feel like anything she’s done has been nearly as special as The Archandroid, which I guess is one of my “island opinions” that makes me look like a contrarian weirdo.
You can’t necessarily fault an artist for making money and seeking fame, and Monae inspires a wide range of people because she is a unique talent who offers representation for some oppressed groups. But I listen to The Archandroid even now and wonder what could have been, because she literally could have done anything with her immense skill and instead is making music I consider to be fairly generic and similar to a lot of previous and contemporary artists. This album strikes me as being more empowering and uplifting than anything that followed it, because it was by an artist who walked her own path and refused to put limits on herself.