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‘The Electric Lady’: Behind Janelle Monáe’s Stimulating Second Album
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘The Electric Lady’: Behind Janelle Monáe’s Stimulating Second Album

Janelle Monáe’s ‘The Electric Lady’ album developed her ‘Metropolis Saga’ with charged electro-funk and high-concept queer expression.

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“I’m a Black queer woman from the middle of America,” Janelle Monáe said in 2020. “I bring that with me everywhere I go. I wear it proudly.” On 2013’s The Electric Lady, Monáe’s Blackness, queerness, gender and cultural upbringing came together to create one of the 21st century’s strongest artistic statements on modern identity. As she sings on ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’: “They call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules down.”

Listen to ‘The Electric Lady’ here.

A motherboard of ideas to luxuriate in

The Electric Lady is parts four and five of the “Metropolis Saga”, set in the dizzying, far-future mythical world of fictional android Cindi Mayweather. Mayweather’s story first came to the world’s notice in 2007, with Monáe’s debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase); but two much earlier songs, Cindi and Metropolis, date from 2003 and Monáe’s self-released, self-distributed CD The Audition. On these very earliest tracks, Monáe traces out some of the ideas that she would build on across the Metropolis EP, her breakthrough 2010 album, The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady and beyond – to 2018’s Dirty Computer and her 2022 fiction collection, The Memory Librarian.

At the beginning of the saga, Mayweather is an Alpha Platinum 9000 android living in Metropolis and forbidden to love a human – a code she breaks. When her transgression is unveiled, she is “scheduled for immediate disassembly”. From there on in, Mayweather’s stories are rarely linear – instead, throughout the multi-part suite, Monáe explores ideas of race, transgression, revolution, conformity and free will in a highly-structured world.

“I love speaking about the android because they are the new ‘other’”

Released on 6 September 2013, The Electric Lady marks a stage of growth in the tale. It was at this point where Monáe decided to expand her original plans, from four to seven suites, and encompass Mayweather’s prehistory as well (Monáe has suggested that The Electric Lady is a prequel to her original Metropolis EP). Time travel makes some sense out of her character’s disorientating world, but there is little point looking for rigid narrative conformity. Instead, it’s easier to appreciate Monáe’s visions as a motherboard of ideas to luxuriate in.

The Electric Lady is not only split into two suites, but also into four sections, which are punctuated by radio broadcasts. These interludes often highlight society’s intolerance towards androids (“Robot love is QUEER!” one talk-radio caller asserts on the Our Favourite Fugitive interlude). “Cindi is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new ‘other’,” Monáe said in 2010. “People are afraid of the other.” Her ideas are partly influenced by Afrofuturism, a Black-created, multi-faceted genre that incorporates literature, art, film and the music of pioneers such as Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra and George Clinton – alongside other science fiction, such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie, Metropolis, which gives Mayweather’s chronicle its name. Yet, for all its techno-imaginings, Monáe’s music is organic, too – its metallic veneer is (intentionally) easily rubbed away.

Indicative of the patience and craft Monáe has always valued, The Electric Lady came three years after The ArchAndroid. “I had time to say no to things that didn’t work for me,” she has explained, reflecting on her gestation as an independent artist. “I had time to find myself, to prepare myself for some of the obstacles that would come my way.” She resisted the pressure to provide a “big single” and, in this, she has much in common with Kate Bush. Ideas as complex as Monáe’s originate from self-reflection and a greedy feasting on intellectual ideas, two processes which cannot be rushed. “I came up with the title in therapy, actually,” Monáe reportedly told friends about The Electric Lady, highlighting her own awareness of the link between headspace and product.

Conceptual yet personal all at once

What’s so very unusual about Monáe is that, despite the political and cerebral intent of her work, the infectiousness of the songs – never more so than on The Electric Lady – is uncompromised. Take the album’s unstoppable second single, Dance Apocalyptic. A riot of hip-hop and girl-group stomp, it’s about the freeing power of body rhythm, particularly the beauty of women together finding a place outside expectations within their dance moves. Wanting the medium to be the message, Monáe had to make sure that people would really “dance until the end” when they heard it: she tested the song in Atlanta’s strip clubs.

Because The Electric Lady is conceptual, that doesn’t mean it’s not personal. Ghetto Woman is almost Tracy Chapman-esque in tone, if not sound: it relates to Monáe’s working-class roots, and pays homage to those like her mother, whom Monáe worked alongside as a maid. “Carry on, ghetto woman/I see you working night to morning light yet no one cares,” Monáe sings. “Carry on, ghetto woman/Even when the news portrays you less than you could be.” It’s interesting that Monáe has referred to her own image – the tuxedo, the quiff, the stark contrasting colours – as a uniform, in solidarity with those “ghetto women” who put on their own uniforms day in, day out.

‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ (an acronym for Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated and Negroid – and apparently recorded with a working title of ‘Q.U.E.E.R.’) features Erykah Badu, and is one of the best LGBTQ+ pride songs of recent years. Monáe’s pansexuality infuses its whole aura, with beautiful expressions of desire such as “Say, is it weird to like the way she wears her tights?” Female solidarity, transgender identity and lesbian gaze can all be read in its lyrics, and all at once.

As outré as modern mainstream music gets

Monáe’s polymorphous sexuality (as well as her electro-funk groove) has a clear forbear in Prince, who is a guest on the album. Givin’ Em What They Love, the first track after the opening overture, is a collaboration between equals rather than the Purple One blessing Monáe with his approval. In fact, Prince had been a fan of Monáe since the Metropolis EP – after her first show in Los Angeles, he waited for her outside the venue to ensure he could speak with her.

Janelle Monáe’s albums are about as outré as modern mainstream music gets in terms of ideas. She refuses to be pigeonholed as an R&B artist, as a pop star, or even as an avant-garde provocateur. Her groundbreaking music and intellectual gravitas encompass all of these, stretching across disciplines, eras and sounds – and she knows it. She was once asked how old she was.

“I’m timeless,” she replied.

‘The Electric Lady’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Suite IV Electric Overture

In the sleevenotes to The Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe gives clues as to her intentions behind most of the album’s tracks. The opening Suite IV Electric Overture, she notes, was inspired by “Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington”, and, upon listening to this spaghetti-Western-style intro with swing undercurrents, those influences clearly shine through. Janelle Monáe/Cindi Mayweather announces her resistance to slavery and commitment to love. Mayweather was last heard from at the end of Suite III (the second half of 2010’s The ArchAndroid) and its epic final track BabopbyeYa; this overture artfully places listeners right back into her world and the Metropolis saga.

Givin’ Em What They Love (featuring Prince)

Prince was a big influence on Janelle Monáe. He, in turn, was a fan of hers, clocking that her unclassifiable sexuality and dedication to the funk was equal to his own. The two artists also shared a questioning outlook, a refusal to be bound by genre and a tendency towards the epic. Givin’ Em What They Love is an ultra-tight groove with searing guitar that was influenced by the documentary series Hidden Colors (a film project of the untold – and suppressed or co-opted – histories of people of Aboriginal, Moor and African descent) and the brazen, brutal, Tarantino movie Django Unchained.

Q.U.E.E.N. (featuring Erykah Badu)

A collaboration with Erykah Badu and inspired by “private discussions” between the two artists, Q.U.E.E.N. is a powerful celebratory song for the dispossessed around the world. The song has particularly been embraced by those who identify as queer: with Monáe’s lyrics revelling in LGBTQ+ slang and beckoning the curious, Q.U.E.E.N. rejects binaries in all their forms and is proud to “defy every label”, as Monáe raps towards the song’s powerful conclusion. “I just like to communicate,” Monáe has said of that particular rap. “If the lyrics call for something more urgent, which that rap did, then I’ll take that route. I wanted to make sure, just in case, if anyone had any questions about what this song was about that I was able to bring it home with the message.”

Electric Lady (featuring Solange)

Electric Lady, with Solange, recalls the airy psychedelic soul of the 70s, albeit with far more feminist bite. Asked who the Electric Lady was, Monáe responded that she’s “someone who cares for the community, [and] who has her own perspectives on making love and what love is”. The Electric Lady can be Cindi Mayweather, but it can also be that amazing friend you have – your lover, your favourite pop star or your own parent (Monáe’s own mother guests in the song’s video). The song’s promo clip is one of Monáe’s best, with a stylised sorority party as its setting, stunning choreography and a fun game of celebrity cameo-spotting throughout. And who doesn’t immediately covet that incredible 8-track version of the album that Monáe slots into her car stereo?

Good Morning Midnight (Interlude)

Peppering The Electric Lady is a series of radio transmissions featuring the fictional DJ Crash Crash. In this first, we hear solidarity with Cindi Mayweather’s resistance. Yet the support quickly tips over into a zeal for violent revolution, highlighting the thin line between passion and destruction, when frustration builds and a moral compass is skewed. DJ Crash Crash was played by Charlie Darker, and the track’s title is from the 1939 Jean Rhys novel – a modernist story of female isolation chiming with The Electric Lady’s darker shadows.

PrimeTime (featuring Miguel)

PrimeTime, with Miguel, slinks The Electric Lady into a smooth R&B jam. Monáe specifically picked Miguel for the sensuous duet, as she explained at the time: “The collaboration happened through our music and energy, being out there, and both of us were fans of one another,” she said. “So when I was ready to write the love song, I thought he was a great communicator to women and to people in general, and I wanted him to be a part of my vision for PrimeTime.” The song’s promo video, set in the Metropolis saga’s Electric Sheep nightclub, references Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K Dick novel that inspired Blade Runner.

We Were Rock And Roll

Inspired by “memory #9553”, Monáe has said that We Were Rock And Roll is “about a relationship I had”, while not divulging any further details. The lyrics are yearning, nostalgic for a past time when everything seemed invincible; the song could almost be set ten years after the events of PrimeTime, when that love had turned cold as stone, with memories the only way to keep warm.

The Chrome Shoppe (Interlude)

Another DJ Crash Crash segment, in this one he’s getting his “chrome polished” and promoting the Cyber Freak festival, thrown by the Electrified Betas (the sorority of the Electric Lady video). Clones and humans are only welcome after midnight!

Dance Apocalyptic

The Electric Lady’s unstoppable single, Dance Apocalyptic is feelgood, glorious pop music that still ranks among the best Janelle Monáe songs. It draws from the bad-girl stomp of the 60s (such as The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las), alongside glam-era David Bowie and the dancefloor pull of OutKast. The song also illustrates Monáe’s consummate skill in fusing together diverse genres and sounds, “playing with all these different styles of music and creating something that has just not been heard”, as she put it. However, the track’s ultimate influence was Bo Diddley. As Monáe told NPR, Bo Diddley “inspired rock and roll, [was] someone who inspired The Beatles, someone who inspired The Rolling Stones. He’s an originator.”

Look Into My Eyes

One of Janelle Monáe’s most cinematic tracks, Look Into My Eyes recalls both Kaa from The Jungle Book and a lost James Bond theme. Monáe herself was inspired by the original mythological sirens, as featured in Homer’s The Odyssey, where female-like creatures lure sailors to their deaths. The song is brief, just about topping two minutes, but its sultry power is undeniable.

Suite V Electric Overture

Laying on a bed of Look Into My Eyes, the overture that opens the second half of The Electric Lady is “inspired by Stevie Wonder listening to Os Mutantes on vinyl”. The idea is delicious, and not hard to imagine. Os Mutantes were a brilliant, radical, psychedelic band, part of the Tropicália artistic movement of the late 60s (and beyond) in Brazil. Tropicália’s father figure was Gilberto Gil, who became a friend of Stevie Wonder, the pair appearing many times on stage together. Monáe, always one to appreciate cultural exchange, loved the idea of US soul music and Brazilian surrealism churning their ideas together, and brings it out on this instrumental.

It’s Code

We’re right back in Cindi Mayweather’s world with It’s Code. “Code” can literally mean programming code; it could be a means of getting across unspoken feelings; it could also be about the rules of behaviour. With AI, codes of conduct and feelings can develop as the machine learns, something Monáe has always been alert to. “I believe we will live in a world where androids will live among us and develop human characteristics and emotions,” she said in 2010, at the time of The ArchAndroid’s release. “Technology is advancing so fast that in two years, computers will have mapped out the human brain to the extent that you won’t be able to recognise the difference between your mother calling to say hello and an android.”

Ghetto Woman

Sitting among Monáe’s most personal songs, Ghetto Woman draws from her own upbringing: it’s about the strength of Kansas City’s Black mothers and daughters, and the unseen, unappreciated, backbreaking work they do. One of the most influential female musicians of her generation, Monáe is from a working-class household, so knows first-hand that dignity and dreams are essential to uphold in working-class communities. “My father was a trashman. My mother was a custodian. My stepfather worked at the post office. My grandmother served food at the county jail,” Monáe said in 2020. “I saw them getting up every single morning, putting on their uniforms, living check to check, working hard. My idea of working was to work hard and contribute to your community. It’s my truth.”

Our Favorite Fugitive (Interlude)

DJ Crash Crash also has to deal with hecklers and bigots. In this interlude, three callers to his show phone in to express their disgust with android love. The final caller asserts that “Robot love is QUEER!”, and DJ Crash Crash rips back: “How would you know it’s queer if you haven’t tried it?”

Victory

In The Electric Lady’s sleevenotes, Monáe writes that Victory was inspired by her own life and times, “as documented at the Palace Of The Dogs”. This palace, an asylum, was the setting for her 2010 Tightrope video; she claimed at the time that it was a real-life establishment, and that “a lot of the greats were admitted into this place, like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. We wanted to keep it raw and funky – just having it in an insane asylum made it that much cooler to me.” There’s little about Victory that suggests the manic energy of Tightrope, yet it’s a song with its own anxious yearning; trying to find hope within betrayal, growth in despair.

Can’t Live Without Your Love

In Suite I of the sprawling Metropolis story, we learn that Cindi Mayweather has fallen in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, and is on the run because their love is forbidden. Can’t Live Without Your Love is Mayweather speaking directly to him, and her emotions at their parting as Mayweather goes on the run. “I love passionate androids,” Monáe has said. “One that knows exactly what it’s going to do in life.”

Sally Ride

Astronaut and physicist Sally Ride was the first American woman to travel into space. The year before The Electric Lady was released, Ride passed away at the age of 61, an undisputed legend who had already been immortalised in song, in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. Of her song Sally Ride, which also speaks to Ride’s lesbian identity, Monáe said “it was paying homage to her and so many other women who have been marginalised. She became an astronaut during a time when they were not allowing women in space. Sally Ride did something remarkable in an industry that really discriminated against women.”

Dorothy Dandridge Eyes (featuring Esperanza Spalding)

Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge, was an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, and a rare 50s Hollywood film with an all-Black cast. Monáe wrote that Dorothy Dandridge Eyes was particularly inspired by that movie’s jeep scene: a glorious celebration of unbound female sexuality and personal resilience. “We just wanted to pay homage to Dorothy Dandridge,” Monáe has said. “Not only was Dorothy beautiful, but she was an activist. She really did open up doors for women of colour.” The track is a collaboration with Esperanza Spalding, one of the best female bassists of all time. “I thought Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady was one of the greatest pieces of work offered to the world in recent history,” Spalding said in 2016. “It’s fucking brilliant.”

What An Experience

Closing The Electric Lady is the reflective What An Experience, its mediation on the passing of time bringing the record’s themes together perfectly. Asked to sum up what an Electric Lady was at the time of the album’s release, Janelle Monáe said, “I think the common thread that keeps us connected, and where I nominate you an electric lady, is your service to the community. And understanding that you have these unique superpowers to change the world around you. And electric ladies also want to be the change that they want to see.”

Looking for more? Discover the pioneering LGBTQ musicians you need to know.

Original article: 6 September 2022

Updated: 6 September 2023

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