“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.