The Album of the Year, so far

Janelle Monaé – The ArchAndroid

After seeing Janelle Monaé last summer – when she was the relatively unheard-of opening act on No Doubt’s reunion tour – and being thoroughly blown away, I scampered over to the merch tent and picked up her Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP. After writing a review in which I compared the R&B singer/songwriter/bandleader to James Brown (which is no hyperbole), my wife and I listened to the EP on the ride home, hoping for an onslaught of funky adrenaline comparable to her live set. And while it’s a very good record, Metropolis’ complicated sci-fi storyline and uneven production values couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations of that moment. Monaé’s debut LP The ArchAndroid, on the other hand, would’ve most certainly extended our post-concert high. A nearly flawless mix of stomping R&B grooves, richly produced pop ballads, twisted Latin rhythms, jazz crooning and orchestral suites, this is a dizzying accomplishment that puts Monaé on a short list of artists who can push the envelope and cross over in the same supercharged breath.

After an over-the-top cinematic intro, complete with booming brass, whispering woodwinds and ominous string passages, Monaé breaks into “Dance or Die,” an Outkast-meets-Gloria Estefan barnburner that’s a great example of what she does best – laying into a simple groove in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts. This segues into “Faster,” an equally propulsive dance floor cut on which Monaé confesses she’s “shaking like a schizo” over sped-up jazz guitar licks.

But The ArchAndroid is an 18-track concept album about cyborg clones, time travel and futuristic psycho wards – it can’t get along solely on the funky stuff. Hence some deftly sequenced moments where Monaé slows things down and shows off her range, doing her best Lauryn Hill impression over the Willy Wonka strings of “Neon Valley Street,” dipping into some English folk melodies on the solemn “57821” and delivering a romantic pop masterpiece in “Oh, Maker.” And when certain songs fall short – which is bound to happen on such a long record – they’re still drenched in the same unflagging creative spirit as everything else. Even though the out-of-place Of Montreal collaboration “Make the Bus” temporarily derails things, you’ve got to respect its boldness.

“So much hurt/On this earth/But you loved me/And I really dared to love you too,” Monaé sings on “Oh, Maker,” over a light-as-air arrangement that sprinkles back-up vocals through the verses like so many raindrops. As the sonic equivalent of raising your eyes to the heavens and enjoying what you see, this track is the centerpiece of The ArchAndroid. Because like one of Monaé’s inspired live sets, this album’ll knock you on your ass like a bolt of lightning hurtled by the gods.

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