Used to be that a performer was considered a triple threat if she could act, sing, and dance. Janelle Monáe may or may not possess the screen chops to match her voice and moves, but either way, implying that she has only three incredible talents would be a gross underestimation. On The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV), she doesn’t just sing, she also raps well enough that even mentor and universally acknowledged badass Big Boi can’t upstage her (on “Tightrope”), does tough and clippy speak-singing like a Broadway pro (Faster”), unleashes a belt that would make Beyoncé jealous (“Cold War”), wails like a riot grrl (“Come Alive”), and—adventurous stuff aside—proves adept in more conventional gospel, soul, and jazz styles. Add to that Monáe’s high-concept sci-fi narrative, which extends to the album’s art and videos, and her retro-futurist fashion sensibility, and she might be the one female performer working today who can make Lady Gaga and M.I.A. look like underachievers.
By all rights, this should be a star-making debut for Monáe, but it’s got all the trappings of a cult hit largely ignored by the mainstream. That’s not just because it’s an elaborately performed and consummately freaky cyber-punk epic, but because it’s so stylistically leftfield in terms of its sound; it’s almost impossible to imagine an audience for it. Comparing Monáe to her famous friends in OutKast makes some sense: ArchAndroid rivals André 3000’s half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below for genre-spanning thrill (but actually betters it in terms of cohesion), while a few of the recurring sounds, like the rapid snare beats and Eddie Hazel-style guitar freakouts, recall the post-Parliament hip-hop of Stankonia. But that’s not what she’s up to, since she makes R&B, not rap, her foundation. Nor is she Erykah Badu’s geekier kid sister, as her sound is as fast, punchy, and dynamic as Badu’s is immersive and free-associative.
No, Monáe sounds like no one but herself, and she gives herself a flawless introduction over the first three tracks (omitting the opening “Suite II Overture,” which proves that slick, conceptual filler is still just filler). “Dance or Die,” “Faster,” and “Locked Inside” transition as seamlessly into one another as each individual song does between its component parts. The first of the trio hits quick and hard, and true to its name, “Faster” only accelerates the tempo, layering jazzy piano chords over handclaps and thudding hip-hop beats, then dropping out everything but the piano for the lead-in to “Locked.” Just as impressive as Monáe’s stylistic versatility is her emotional range. The funky, tough demeanor that she adopts for “Dance or Die” gradually dissolves into chase-scene desperation, but by the end of her little trilogy, she’s another kind of desperate, giving a heart-wrenchingly raw vocal performance that could stand without all the sonic flourishes but is only the better for them.
If ArchAndroid maintained that level of minute-for-minute consistency throughout, it would be nothing short of epochal, but as is, the cyber diva proves that she’s only human. Parts of the album’s first suite match the opening set’s brilliance (“Tightrope” and “Come Alive” actually surpass it), but some of the tracks are inessential, like the croony “Sir Greendown,” or out of place, as with the glitchy, psychedelic “Neon Gumbo.” Inessential, though, certainly does not mean unenjoyable. Monáe’s vocals are always engaging enough, and she’d never lay a track to record without stuffing at least two or three cool ideas into it first.
The album’s second suite, though, is where Monáe’s mettle is really tested. The first 40 minutes of ArchAndroid whiz buy on pure momentum, at which point Monáe still has a half hour to fill, but she avoids the common pitfalls of contemporary R&B discs, refusing to kill time with sappy ballads and perfunctory guest spots. Though Monáe does extend an ill-considered invite to Of Montreal, who rock with her on “Make the Bus,” it’s definitely not a pander to the indie set; in fact, the absurdly theatrical funk-tronica piece sounds like it was as much fun to make as it isn’t to listen to. For the most part, the third suite eschews instant gratification pop (exception: delirious synth-pop gem “Wondaland”), allowing Monáe to try her hand at mind-melting instrumentals like “Neon Valley Street” and the long, stormy closers “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBobByeYa.” Compared to the first half, there are fewer hooks and more flubbed experiments, but it remains an arresting showcase to Monáe’s vision.
It’s impossible to blame her for taking those kinds of chances. They might compromise ArchAndroid as a front-to-back listen, but Monáe has her whole career to worry about making a pitch-perfect record. As is, she’s turned out a landmark debut that contains a full LP’s worth of excellent songs and almost no bad ones, and she’s done it entirely on her own highly idiosyncratic terms. And where her ambition just barely gets the better of her abilities, she puts on such a relentlessly entertaining show that you can certainly understand why she thought she could pull the whole thing off.