Janelle Monae aims to mediate cultures

For a fleeting moment, Janelle Monae is flustered. The naturally cool and composed 24-year-old Grammy nominee doesn’t understand why some perceive her conceptually driven, restlessly ambitious music as strange or inaccessible.

“What’s complicated about it?” she asks.

For starters, her debut album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), grapples with themes of morality, social maladjustment, insecurity, and technological evolution, taking many of its cues from the 1927 German film Metropolis. Monae seems reluctant to divulge the sources of her inspiration, but she admits that the Fritz Lang classic gives her a more transparent understanding of the societal organism from which we all spring.

“At the root of it all, my goal is to unite. I want to be the mediator between all opposing groups,” she explains. “I feel like we’re all intertwined and connected, whether we like it or not.”

If this sounds saccharine, well, it is. But in an age of widespread cynicism, Monae’s earnestness is refreshing. Unlike her ironic or more self-consciously intellectual peers, Monae wears her heart on her sleeve. Even her wackier proclamations — “I look at myself as a time traveler” — don’t seem calculated.

After all, this is a person who identifies as neither woman nor man — she’s an android, you see. And she has spoken regularly of feeling powerless and alienated. But she’s also remarkably comfortable in her own skin.

Of course, elusive weirdness isn’t exclusive to popular music. From David Bowie to Morrissey to Annie Lennox, music-chart history is studded with artists who toy with identity and sexual protocol. (Lady Gaga most adroitly plays in the culture’s hall of mirrors. She has employed the group Semi Precious Weapons on her Monster Ball Tour to parade around in smutty, transgendered new-wave get-ups. No one bats an eyelash.)

The industry, however, is hardly a level playing field, and Monae knows it. Whereas white musicians are free to exercise their strangest, most hermaphroditic impulses, African-American women pursuing a singing career typically have two options: They train to become vocal powerhouses, or they lather themselves in baby oil and flaunt their assets, à la Keri Hilson and Nicki Minaj. Even Monae is expected to look and sound the part of an archetypal black female vocalist.

She’s having none of that.

“It’s important to celebrate diversity as it pertains to your race, gender — or transgender,” she says. She laughs. “We live in a world where the media gives us this ideal look of what you should be like and what should be celebrated.”

Asked to define an “android,” Monae speaks in high-minded flourishes. “The dictionary defines an android as a robot that develops human feelings,” she says. “But it’s also the other, the minority, the new race. There have been times when I’ve felt that way.”

Monae’s influences — which include Prince, Andre 3000, and the prog-leaning indie outfit Of Montreal — reveal an artist who blends genres as freely as she assembles outfits. Much of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) celebrates funk-leaning R&B in the vein of Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun or D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, but the album is more playful than either of those discs. “Cold War” gracefully skewers a world that too often succumbs to petty conflict, and the crawling “57821” jettisons politics to revel in an extended jam session.

It’s pop music as manifesto. “People love speaking out of hate,” she says. “They want to perpetuate the idea that it’s OK to keep fighting. But we have a choice. You have to live life as a compassionate person if you want to understand the world.”

The album’s clobbering rhythms, distorted synthesizers and squealing funk guitars add up to something both catchy and subversive: a trippy strain of futuristic soul that scans as addictive head-nod music. And if The Arch­Android is ultimately hard to classify, it’s because Monae despises convenient labels.

“I love that you can’t sum it up easily,” Monae says. “We’ve done performances with everyone from Prince to Stevie Wonder to No Doubt. You can’t sum up my audience.”

Perhaps Monae’s most important industry contact, though, is Big Boi, of platinum-selling, avant-garde hip-hop duo OutKast. He raps a verse on the ArchAndroid single “Tightrope,” but his drossy gangsta pretension only hints at the chaotic talent that, along with partner-in-rhyme Andre 3000, has largely redefined commercial hip-hop in the late ’90s and early ’00s.

Big Boi happened to see one of Monae’s earliest performances in Atlanta. The singer had barely started college, but her magnetic persona was already taking shape. A floored Big Boi introduced himself. Soon the Kansas City, Kansas, native was jetting to New York to meet another industry legend, Sean “Diddy” Combs, who signed her to his Bad Boy imprint and put her vocals on several tracks on Idlewild, OutKast’s polarizing, gorgeous 2006 album.

Diddy served as executive producer for The ArchAndroid, but his savvy, sometimes cynical marketplace calculus has done little to cramp Monae’s style. Rather than attempt to refine and mold, the power players in Monae’s inner circle have wisely chosen to nurture her farsighted creativity. Not that she’s surprised to see her music finding a mainstream audience. “People don’t know what they want to hear until they hear it,” she says.

She knows that’s a bit too simple. For all the razzle-dazzle of her music, Monae hardly fits the prescribed bill of an international pop star. She lacks the relatable charm of her contemporaries, preferring to speak in a stoner’s cosmic platitudes. (“The heart has to be the mediator between the head and the hand.”) So despite The ArchAndroid‘s plentiful hooks, it also goes for maximal indulgence, lacking the quaint, compact marketability of most top-40 records.

But being a celebrity isn’t the plan. Asked about her performance at February’s Grammy Awards — where she sang in a quartet with Bruno Mars and B.o.B. — Monae is vague, even subdued. “It was a beautiful experience, just being with people that are passionate about giving great performances,” she says.

That’s it: nothing too quotable, nothing too sensationalized. Monae instead exudes the confidence of someone for whom fame means little. Resonating with listeners is what counts. Her goal isn’t stardom. It’s intercultural mediation.

Categories: Music