Sci-Fi Funk: Robot Rhythms of Janelle Monae

BY Arts Desk  July 22, 2009 at 11:09 AM EST

Cindi Mayweather is a cyborg who is wanted for falling in love with a human, and she’s on the funkiest run in recent memory.

She is also the alter ego of Janelle Monae, a rhythm and blues singer whose 2007 album “Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase” boasts clever orchestrations, dynamic vocal stylings, and a political message that transcends the world of a made-up “Metropolis” by finding parallels in ours.

“You’re free but in your mind, your freedom’s in a bind,” Monae sings on “Many Moons,” lyrics she delivers in live shows wearing a trademark white suit jacket and saddle shoes, a costume that conjures up a distinct sense of her character. Her uniform recalls the traditions of black performers and the ways in which white America has perceived them. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people think African-American female artists are monolithically R&B this-or-that,” Monae recently told Interview magazine. Her album challenges not only any pre-existing expectations in its sound and its unusual, sci-fi concept.

Her highly theatrical approach isn’t a surprise coming from Monae, who studied musical theater at the American Musical Academy before pursuing pop music. But shifting between the fictional storytelling within her songs, and the autobiographical descriptions of the crime-afflicted Kansas City neighborhood where she grew up, add to the diffusion between Mayweather and Monae, Metropolis and metropolitan America. Both worlds are characterized by limited opportunity, discrimination and dissatisfaction. In this way, Mayweather’s rebellious human-cyborg love affair becomes an archetypical act of political resistance. And it resonates alongside Monae’s call for creative, compassionate action for improving our own country. “Can we talk about education for our children?” she sings on “Mr. President,” “A book is worth more than a bomb any day.” In “Sincerely, Jane,” which features a chorus of French horns that crescendos in peels of alarm, the narrative moves from the Mayweather on-the-run storyline to Monae’s personal reflections on the urban poverty she left behind: “Left the city, my mama she said don’t come back no more.”

Monae has been frank about her father’s drug addiction and about the relief she found in music and her imagination. After winning a scholarship to attend the American Musical Academy in New York, she moved to Atlanta, where she co-founded the Wondaland Arts Society, an artists’ collaborative and record label founded by local acts such as Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of the hip-hop duo Outkast. This year she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.

After releasing her first album, “The Audition,” Monae released the first of four planned Metropolis concept albums two years ago (a special edition, “The Chase Suite,” followed in 2008). She intends for the serial (or “suite”) format to give listeners a commercial incentive to purchase whole albums rather than single songs, but also to work on a long-term series where she can augment, embellish and experiment with her original songs, concepts and performances.

Through a flurry of media appearances, including an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and the performance of her song “Open Happiness” on American Idol, Monae brings independently produced music to a wider audience, cultivating an image that is at once down-to-earth and artistically other-worldly. Suites II and III are slated for release this year. “It’s a big universe,” the self-described “girl from another planet” told Interview, “To stay in one tiny place is doing a disservice to yourself.”