The near-cohesion of Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady is impressive, given the singer’s rather too-expansive artistic headspace and commendable, if tricky, devotion to her own outré obsessions, including but certainly not limited to aliens, robots, and robot-aliens. The album is a lengthy but never boring tribute to bounce and grind that coheres less on Monáe’s personality than on her sense of melodic surprise. The liner notes, which warn that the songs “CONTAIN UNGOODLY MESSAGES, REVOLUTIONARY COUNTERVOODOO, AND HARMFUL WONDERVIBES,” suggest a narrative agenda, but the story Monáe seems most interested in telling is one about how R&B isn’t dead.
Monáe is slowly working through a George Lucas-style series of entries in her Metropolis saga that began with 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I; suites IV and V, which form Electric Lady, sound like Pink Floyd’s orchestral excursions on Atom Heart Mother, except with drums and bass on loan from Marvin Gaye’s early-’70s Motown bands. The finest standalone moments are “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a collaboration with Erykah Badu, which hits like early Funkadelic; “Dance Apocalyptic,” a funk rave-up built over what sounds like a Bradley Nowell guitar figure; and “Givin’ Em What They Love,” which features Prince, whose own overt weirdnesses have similarly galvanized and muddled his own work. Together, the two geeked-out visionaries concoct the spookiest R&B track since Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tried to put a spell on you.
The album’s frustrations are of a piece—that is, they each boast at least a dimension of the charms that Monáe unifies in her best songs. She spins out gorgeous melodic extensions in “We Were Rock & Roll,” a piece of kiss-off convention that’s pretty, but without discernible substance or edge. The results are magic, however, when the singer aligns her melodic instincts with the timeless energies of the R&B that she loves more than she does any mortal man (or bionic man; the distinctions aren’t always clear). Monáe’s fascination with music borders on the sexual: In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” she makes it clear that she prefers to “dance alone late at night,” a line she delivers as both straight fact and lusty metaphor.
In the end, to discuss the components of Electric Lady is to miss its creator’s intent, and the more durable pleasures of the album, the premise of which is that R&B, having survived neo-soul, can also survive the robot apocalypse (how very George Clinton). These two discs capture, in far more disciplined fashion than her debut, the motley delights of this singer and self-styled savant, whose delivery is as impressive and singular as her dance moves. Good on producers Big Boi and Diddy, sure, but mainly good on Monáe. At the current rate, subsequent entries in the Metropolis saga will blow our collective bot-minds while offering funk (and, apparently, “countervoodoo”) unseen since the numbered days of Eddie Hazel.