“The Archandroid” is Still a Testament to Limitless Talent

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.

This New Janelle Monáe Song is Not Good

On her debut full-length, The Archandroid, Janelle Monáe established herself as a unique and daring voice. The album refused to belong to any one genre, instead blending funk, hip-hop, soul, folk, and psychedelic rock. Its lyrics might have been even more ambitious: inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe’s songs were based around the concept of a messianic android named Cindy Mayweather and touched on themes of afro-futurism and cyborg feminism. It felt completely new and it justifiably made her a star.

Eight years later, it’s hard to find a starker contrast to The Archandroid than one of Monáe’s new singles, “Django Jane.” While her first album felt like the work of an artist with something to prove who was overflowing with creative energy, on “Django Jane” she reveals herself to be someone who has become complacent and bought into her own celebrity hype. Where once there were lyrics that told fantastical stories with deep, thought-provoking themes, now there are only smug boasts. “Already got an Oscar for the casa,” she brags about winning a meaningless award chosen by the same group of voters that gave Crash best picture. “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon,” she later adds, smirking as she revels in her popularity.

It’s hard to argue with the last part: Monáe is massively successful now, a star of music and film, and this single was met with a wave of admiration on social media. Many are empowered and inspired by her music, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. But I find this type of pop song, that’s so focused on the artist’s own success and greatness, to be possibly the worst thing in music. If someone walked up to me on the street and started bragging to me about the awards they’ve won and how many people love them, I wouldn’t find them inspiring. I’d find them annoying. And I would probably think they were compensating for something.

It’s not just the egotism of the lyrics that grates. Musically, there is no attempt at innovation or genre-bending like on The Archandroid. Monáe spends most of the song half-rapping while autotuned over generic pop sounds that anyone could have made. It makes such poor use of her phenomenal ability that it almost feels like self-sabotage. There are few other ways to explain why this artist whose music once exuded musical freedom is content to put herself into this tiny box.

In a promotional interview with The Guardian, Monáe flaunted her independence, proclaiming that “you don’t own or control me.” It’s a good message in theory, but it’s hard to reconcile that quote with this song that sounds so desperate for external validation. The Archandroid was the work of a truly independent artist who clearly did not care about how people perceived her — ironically, it sounded more confident than this song because it took risks and didn’t conform to any expectations. “Django Jane,” on the other hand, feels like an artist who is under the control of the music industry and her own increasing thirst for fame and adulation. Its pandering lyrics and generic sound indicate an artist who craves the approval of the puppet-masters who run the Grammys more than one who is interested in music as a form of real self-expression.

As is often the case with pop music, I suspect what makes me absolutely hate this song is what makes other people love it. It’s that Monáe, to use the parlance of our times, “gives zero fucks,” and is simply owning her stature as an artist and giving herself credit. She came from nothing to be what she is today and has earned the right to brag about it. I can see how her confidence and lack of restraint in showing it could be empowering. As a white man, I’ve never had to be empowered ever, so I’ll concede that this song potentially has a power to many listeners that I can’t fully know.

But I do know Monáe’s music and what she’s capable of. I remember being so absorbed by The Archandroid, wondering with excitement about how she would follow it up, and thinking that she could be another Björk — an artist with otherworldly talent who merged different genres and existed outside of the typical pop/indie divide. So to hear her sink to the level of this song is really depressing. The artist I initially loved never would have made a song that sounded this lazy. “Django Jane” could generously be described as an intriguing political statement, but it’s barely music.