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Best Janelle Monáe Songs: 20 Visions Of Afrofuturist Pop
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Best Janelle Monáe Songs: 20 Visions Of Afrofuturist Pop

The best Janelle Monáe songs find a space where Black experience, queer expression, sci-fi pop, imagination, reality and technology intersect.

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“Beyond time and memory – where the computer cannot reach – is dreaming.” Janelle Monáe wrote these words as part of the introduction to her 2022 story collection, The Memory Librarian. In this book, as in the best Janelle Monáe songs, this 21st-century polymath is fascinated by the spaces between flesh and circuitry, between memory and future paths, and between imagination and the lived reality of being a Black, queer, North American woman.

Monáe uses ideas that have roots in Afrofuturism, a science-fiction fantasy zone where issues of civil rights and Black experiences intersect with futuristic societies and cosmic energies. “I thought science fiction was a great way of talking about the future,” Monáe said in 2013. “It doesn’t make people feel like you’re talking about things that are happening right now, so they don’t feel like you’re talking down to them. It gives the listener a different perspective.” She primarily does this through Metropolis, a multi-album, multimedia, time-spanning saga, and its recurring android character, Cindi Mayweather.

Yet a listener does not have to know, or particularly care, about any of the philosophies underpinning Monáe’s work. For most of her music, it’s easy to dial in, to dance, to sing along to the sublimely crafted pop and heavy funk treatments that her music offers. Monáe never looks down on the physical power of movement; in fact, she celebrates it as a way to free your mind, as well as for its inherent joy.

Here, we present 20 of the best Janelle Monáe songs: fuel for your brain and your booty.

Listen to the best of Janelle Monáe here, and check out our best Janelle Monáe songs, below

20: Oh, Maker (from ‘The ArchAndroid’, 2010)

One of Monáe’s most outwardly straightforward songs, the love-related imagery in Oh, Maker draws liberally on colours as expressions of moods (in this, it’s similar to what Joni Mitchell achieves on the song Marcie, from her 1968 debut album, Song To A Seagull). Vocally, it’s also a triumph, showing how Monáe can switch between the candid vocal treatment of the verses to the soulful enormity of the chorus.

19: Special Education (with Goodie Mob) (from ‘Age Against The Machine’, 2013)

“I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and I grew up on OutKast, I grew up on Goodie Mob, I grew up on Dungeon Family,” Monáe has said. “So the fact that they’re coming back with music that is jamming and that I get to be a part of it, it’s just such an honour.” Goodie Mob formed in 1991, and their 1995 debut album, Soul Food, stands as a classic of Southern hip-hop. It also comes from a similar mindset to Monáe – conscious, questioning and steeped in a culture of church and Southern community. Special Education, from the reunion album Age Against The Machine, earns its place among the best Janelle Monáe songs for the way her presence beautifully joins the dots within Atlanta’s Black musical heritage.

18: Hum Along And Dance (Gotta Get Down) (from ‘The Get Down’ soundtrack, 2016)

Monáe doesn’t use an awful lot of samples in her music, so when she does introduce elements of others’ songs she treats them carefully, embedding their spirit as well as their beats. Here, she samples a particularly strutting Jackson 5 track from 1973, Hum Along And Dance (originally written by Norman Whitfield, with an earlier, more psychedelic version having been performed by The Temptations in 1970), incorporating it into one of the best Janelle Monáe songs of the 2010s. She picked the parts of the record she liked, but was very conscious of keeping the essence of the original’s mood. As for the lyrical subject matter, Monáe has said, “I was envisioning a world where colour was not the centre of attention. It wasn’t about Black and white, green and yellow, but we were all on the dancefloor together, living and breathing as one.” The track was written especially for the Baz Luhrmann Netflix show, The Get Down.

17: Yoga (with Jidenna) (from ‘Wondaland Presents: The Eephus’, 2015)

Just as the dearly departed Olivia Newton-John used her 1981 hit Physical to sneak in plenty of sexuality under the guise of fitness, Yoga is Janelle Monáe doing the same – and having heaps of fun in the process. Monáe and Jidenna claimed that the whole Wondaland Records collective used to do yoga regularly, and when the pair were creating the song they thought about the ideas of balance which are central to yoga. “All of us, as human beings, struggle with staying balanced,” Monáe said on The Tonight Show, at the time of Yoga’s release. “Partying over pondering… sometimes you might think too much, and sometimes you might even party too much!” Drawing from trap and hip-hop, the track was released as part of an EP featuring other artists on the Wondaland roster, Wondaland Presents: The Eephus.

16: Dance Or Die (featuring Saul Williams) (from ‘The ArchAndroid’, 2010)

“There’s a war in all the streets, and yes the freaks must dance or die!” Following the opening Suite II Overture, Dance Or Die immediately makes clear Janelle Monáe’s ambition for The ArchAndroid. “That’s what I’ve always been fighting for – making sure that people love themselves for who they are, and we don’t pick on people because we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, or who they are,” Monáe said as The ArchAndroid was released. “That’s been my message, from when I was young to now.” Progressive soul meets preacher-like invocations in an Afrofuturist universe on this shoo-in among the best Janelle Monáe songs.

15: Dorothy Dandridge Eyes (featuring Esperanza Spalding) (from ‘The Electric Lady’, 2013)

Dorothy Dandridge was one of the great US actors of the 50s, starring in the title role of 1954’s Carmen Jones, an African-American musical retelling of Bizet’s opera Carmen. In addition, Dandridge fought industry racism and press intrusion – it is clear that her eyes contained strength and fire as well as beauty. The heroine of Dorothy Dandridge Eyes is equally self-assured and bewitching. “I wanted to just pay respect,” Monáe has said of this track. “Not only was Dorothy beautiful but she was an activist, she opened up doors for people, and we just didn’t think people were letting this generation know how important she was to young African-Americans.”

14: Venus Fly (with Grimes) (from ‘Art Angels’, 2015)

Venus Fly is the first of two Grimes collaborations on this list of the best Janelle Monáe songs. It’s easy to see why the two artists’ musical visions coalesce so well: both are experimental while comfortable in the pop field; and both are mentally unafraid of direct eye-contact, of why-you-looking-at-me confrontation. Like two Gorgons who turn unwelcome gazes to stone, Monáe and Grimes are not only angry on the growling electronica of Venus Fly, they are eerie, supernatural – and will not be held back by earthly forces.

13: Ghetto Woman (from ‘The Electric Lady’, 2013)

Janelle Monáe’s mother, Janet, is the inspiration for Ghetto Woman. The singer used to work alongside her mother as a maid, so Monáe has experienced first-hand the essentiality but invisibility of the work Black women across North America do day in, day out. Ghetto Woman expresses respect for this thankless toil. “Hold on to your dreams and all your great philosophies,” Monáe sings. “You’re the reason I believe in me, for real.” Janet herself gets a cameo in the video to Electric Lady, the fourth single lifted from Janelle Monáe’s 2013 album, The Electric Lady.

12: Screwed (featuring Zoë Kravitz) (from ‘Dirty Computer’, 2018)

Part of Monáe’s cleverness is that she can make disparate elements sound so right together. The transition between Screwed and Dirty Computer’s next track, Django Jane, is smooth as silk, even though the songs are enormously different in sound (and Monáe’s vocals are also wildly dissimilar on each). One of the best Janelle Monáe songs of recent years, Screwed highlights all the different ways that women are screwed in the North America of 2018 – from hypocritical instructions to cover up, to fake bodies, through to the very real suppression of protest.

11: Mushrooms And Roses (from ‘The ArchAndroid’, 2010)

The artist that Janelle Monáe is compared most with is Prince. Though there are some sonic similarities, it’s also a harmony in sensibility that prompts the comparison. Monáe can bring the funk while simultaneously exploring her more experimental and conceptual impulses. She can also go slower without wandering into clichéd ballad terrain, in exactly the way that Prince was so skilled at. Mushrooms And Roses is an excellent of example of Monáe’s elegiac qualities, all processed through heavily vocodered vocals.

10: Look Into My Eyes (from ‘The Electric Lady’, 2013)

On Look Into My Eyes, Janelle Monáe channels the spirit of Kaa, the hypnotic snake of The Jungle Book, and almost verbalises the imagery of the song (listen to her sing “the staircase winding down” and hear her create steps of clouds with her words). Pulsating with erotic energy, and at barely two minutes long, it takes no time at all to fall under the spell of this entry among the best Janelle Monáe songs.

9: Sincerely, Jane (from the ‘Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)’ EP, 2007)

Sincerely, Jane is from Janelle Monáe’s first official release, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). This EP introduced the world to the saga of android Cindi Mayweather and the dystopian city of Metropolis. On Sincerely, Jane, Monáe begins exploring something she would return to again and again – that future societies have their seeds in the present. With this track, she builds on the history of songs such as Marlena Shaw’s Woman Of The Ghetto and Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City as she chronicles drugs, sexual exploitation and stunted hope. “Daydreamers, please wake up,” Monáe sings. “We can’t sleep no more.”

8: Pynk (featuring Grimes) (from ‘Dirty Computer’, 2018)

The American desert – gritty, gunslinging, usually gendered masculine – is the setting for Pynk’s video. Instead of dusty plains, Monáe colours it pink, wears billowing vagina-shaped trousers, and luxuriates in the beauty of women. With the same spirit, she completely relocates Pink by Aerosmith (the song’s primary sample), transforming the original from a cavalcade of aggressively heterosexual metaphors into her own proudly queer space. Easily one of the best Janelle Monáe songs, Pynk is, in Monáe’s words, “a celebration of creation, self-love, sexuality and pussy power”, and she was inspired to write it by numerous factors, including a teasing smile in Prince’s Sign O’ The Times concert film and the confrontational performance art of Carolee Schneemann.

7: Many Moons (from the ‘Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)’ EP, 2007)

“The quote [from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis] that I was really inspired by was ‘the mediator between the mind and the hand is the heart’,” Monáe has said. “When I read that, I said, ‘That’s me! I like uniting people with the music we’re creating.” On Many Moons, Monáe explores this idea in depth, and it is particularly brought out in the short film that accompanies the song. With queasy reminisces of a slave auction, Many Moons depicts an android parade – Cindi Mayweather clones presented to a moneyed audience – while Mayweather herself performs with such abandon that she levitates in a short-circuited frenzy. Throughout the song, Monáe sings of “night children” and being “stuck here underground” in reference to the Underground Railroad system which worked towards the liberation of Black slaves in the 19th century. The film’s final Mayweather quote is, “I imagined many moons in the sky, lighting the way to freedom,” offering hope of android emancipation.

6: Q.U.E.E.N. (featuring Erykah Badu) (from ‘The Electric Lady’, 2013)

Erykah Badu is known widely for her first two albums, Baduizm (1997) and Mama’s Gun (2000), but it is her dense New Amerykah project, the first two instalments of which were released in 2008 and 2010, respectively, that allies her most with Janelle Monáe’s worldview. New Amerykah, particularly Part One (4th World War), anticipates some of the ideas explored from a different angle on many of the best Janelle Monáe songs, so its unsurprising that the pair’s collaboration on Q.U.E.E.N. (an acronym for Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated and Negroid) is such a powerful combination of intellects. Monáe has not elaborated much on this song’s writing process, only stating that it grew from private discussions between her and Badu. Q.U.E.E.N. also contains some of Monáe’s most playful out-and-proud lines, such as, “Is it weird to like the way she wears her tights?” and “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”

5: Hell You Talmbout (with Wondaland labelmates) (standalone single, 2015)

Hell You Talmbout lists Black lives lost to police brutality and/or violent racism, imploring us to say their names until we never forget them. In 2015, after Monáe performed Hell You Talmbout on NBC with her Wondaland colleagues, she declared: “God bless America! God bless all the lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want Black America to know we stand tall today. We will not be silenced.” The camera then panned away from her monologue, while she was still speaking, to go to a commercial break. While the network denied that they were being censorial, the incident showed that the white establishment was, at the very least, uncomfortable or thoughtless when dealing with Hell You Talmbout, and this in itself makes its message more even vital. Arguably the most moving of the best Janelle Monáe songs, Hell You Talmbout inspired David Byrne to ask for Monáe’s permission to perform it during his American Utopia stage shows (she agreed), and Monáe herself has returned to the concept, with 2021’s equally powerful Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout), in which she names 61 murdered women in just under 18 minutes. “Sound is our weapon,” Monáe wrote on her Instagram at the time of the song’s release. “They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves.”

4: Make Me Feel (from ‘Dirty Computer’, 2018)

Janelle Monáe had not released anything for three years when she gyrated back into our lives with Make Me Feel. This hard funk track rivalled the best work of Prince, and Monáe has revealed that its heavy synth sound was no mere homage. “Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” she said in 2018. “I really miss him, it’s hard for me to talk about him.” Monáe’s work is often complex and conceptually dense, so when – as on this track – she goes for the dance jugular and basically commands you to move, hell, you do it.

3: Tightrope (featuring Big Boi) (from ‘The ArchAndroid’, 2010)

Never was a song so aptly named. Taut, elevated, controlled: every step Janelle Monáe takes on Tightrope is precise and balanced (balance being a theme threaded through many of the best Janelle Monáe songs). “I wanted people to find their inner confidence and to feel more self-empowered in understanding that they have to stay more balanced in life,” Monáe said of the track. “That was my goal. James Brown influenced it, of course. I wanted it to be that 2010 beyond anthem – that classic song that you can go to in any moment when you feel like things are out of control in life. That’ll be your little medicine.” Tightrope announced Monáe’s arrival as a cultural force in the 2010s, and it won places in several best-song-of-the-year lists.

2: Dance Apocalyptic (from ‘The Electric Lady’, 2013)

A track road-tested in the strip clubs of Atlanta, Georgia, Dance Apocalyptic is about the liberating power of rhythm, whether that’s by being a street B-girl in hip-hop, a choreographed fingersnapper in a girl group, or an uninhibited solo mover in front of your own mirror. “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” Monáe commented at the time of The Electric Lady’s release. “And I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.” Released as the album’s lead single, Dance Apocalyptic is, in a strange way, an embodiment of this struggle – the tightrope between the physical and the cerebral, the electronic and the organic, the familiars of the past and the shock of the new. “I love making radical art that pushes a culture forward,” Monáe has said. “That says something different and cuts through.”

1: Cold War (from ‘The ArchAndroid’, 2010)

Topping our list of the best Janelle Monáe songs, Cold War finds Monáe speaking from the heart about a hostile environment all around her. She may ostensibly be in character as android Cindi Mayweather, but in the song and the video Monáe is expressing something that fuses fact and fiction, and delves deep into her own psyche. “I remember crying during Cold War [on the] first take,” she said in 2010. “[The video] deals with a psychosis – you’re in my mind and you get a chance to understand Metropolis, where it all stemmed [from], and my thoughts. It’s very psychedelic and trippy.” Monáe has often said that she uses Mayweather and the Metropolis saga to express outsider status, and she has never bettered that metaphor here. “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” runs the track’s most memorable line, perfectly capturing the mental trauma caused by systemic and institutional discrimination. Yet hope never dies: “All the tribes comes and the mighty will crumble,” she sings. “We must brave this night and have faith in love.”

Looking for more? Check out the most influential female musicians of all time.

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