The Perennial Perfection of Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid
A retrospective review of the best psychedelic R&B sci-fi concept album you’ll ever hear
Ambient echoes hum through the air. Cellists and violinists tune their instruments while spectators laugh and whisper. Silence lingers until the audience applauds and boom: the ArchOrchestra begins the “Suite II Overture,” weaving swelling piano flourishes and textured percussion lines together in a foreboding brew of musicianship. Medieval tenor choruses bellow through the mix, followed by snaking basslines and cascades of synth bleeps. A mystery instrument (is it a pipa or a mandolin?!) noodles in the background while hushed Disney-like vocals sing about being the chosen one. The instruments build for one last crescendo and then the overture ends. Applause ushers the music out and then an electric zap transitions the first track into “Dance or Die,” the triumphant funk-rap tune that sets the tone for Janelle Monáe’s 2010 opus, The ArchAndroid.
Janelle Monáe has always existed just at the margins of mainstream success and popularity. She’s released three studio albums, one EP, starred in critically acclaimed films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures, and lent her voice in advocacy to those at the intersection of black and queer. So it wouldn’t be right to say that Monáe is not a household name. However, she has yet to reach the level of pop stardom I believe her stellar music deserves.
Janelle’s storytelling and worldbuilding originally made me love her music and everything she stands for. Her first EP and two studio albums were individual suites in a larger sci-fi “Emotion Picture,” titled Metropolis. Monáe also dropped an album in 2018 titled Dirty Computer, a magnificent pop record that exists outside of the Metropolis universe and depicts Monáe embracing her queer identity and writing bangers in devotion to self-love. This album was one of my favorites of 2018.
However, in the Metropolis series, Janelle plays Cindi Mayweather, an android who is punished by society for falling in love with a human, named Sir Anthony Greendown. Across The Chase (Suite 1), The ArchAndroid (Suites 2 and 3), and The Electric Lady (Suites 4 and 5), Mayweather runs from the Droid Control, finds herself trapped in a Cybertronic Purgatory, and starts an uprising against the oppressive forces that rule Metropolis. These story developments are uplifted by inventive, amorphous, and downright delectable funk, soul, rock, and R&B.
I want to specifically focus on suites 2 and 3 of Metropolis, 2010’s The ArchAndroid. To put it simply, this album changed my perception of the “album” as a musical convention. Monáe packs centuries of influences and centuries of trailblazing in a 69 minute dystopian opera. Though the album could be classified as mainly funk and soul, individual tracks veer into hip-hop, progressive rock, Bowie-esque anthems, autotuned electro, classical compositions, and even pastoral folk. The ArchAndroid is a witch’s brew of sci-fi storytelling and musical choices that are just as futuristic.
But why does this album need a retrospective review? Aside from my personal infatuation with this album, I feel as though Monáe’s artistry is simply not appreciated enough in today’s music landscape. I wouldn’t necessarily call her influential (her sound is simply so unique that it is hard to replicate), but I believe music listeners would be hard-pressed to find an artist whose music has this much depth, invention, and pop sensibility. Not only are these songs experimental in genre and structure, but they are also immediate earworms, pockets of sci-fi pop in a larger tapestry of musical exploration.
Therefore, I want to highlight several tracks from the ArchAndroid that make this album so undeniably special. First, I want to note how Monáe uses transitions in this album. I have always loved when tracks in an album flow seamlessly into one another; these transitions unite the tracks together not only in lyricism and content but also in form and texture. The album opens with a 4-track medley, starting with “Suite II Overture” and ending with “Locked Inside.” These songs rip and run at top speed with a solid funk groove as the backbone. On “Dance or Die,” Monáe raps about liberation and self-expression. Near the middle of the song, Monáe proclaims “Freedom necessary and it's by any means,” clearly indicating her commitment to social justice in both the fictional Metropolis and the unjust reality in which we find ourselves. With a euphoric salvo of guitar licks, the song transitions into “Faster,” a thumping funk tune about Cindi’s need to avoid her love for Anthony Greendown to focus on her revolutionary goals. “These dreams are forever,” she sings, a hopeful declaration in the face of peril.
Honey-smooth guitars strum the song to a close, and then two drum snare cracks announce the arrival of my favorite song on the album, “Locked Inside.” This track combines all of the elements of Monáe’s music that I love — incendiary personality, jazz-funk musicality, and unbridled positivity. Stevie Wonder’s undying influence shines through the seams of this composition, its dazzling chords and musical passages hearkening back to the best of Songs in the Key of Life. My favorite part of this song is the transcendent guitar solo. Kellindo Parker (the nephew of legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker) is Monáe’s resident guitar soloist, and he more than delivers on “Locked Inside.” His piercing solo swirls through the mix, hitting all sorts of jazzy pockets, while Monáe passionately belts “I can make a change / I can start a fire / Lord, let me love again / Lord, fill me with desire.” The song then explodes into a euphoric celebration of both funk music and revolutionary spirit. If there is any song to check out from this album full of classic tunes, check out “Locked Inside.” It’s rare a song this fully-realized is both musically complex and undeniably catchy. This balance is present in all of Monáe’s music — despite her frequent and unexpected genre detours, her penchant for pop songwriting is unmistakable.
Another highlight in the album is what is one of Monáe’s biggest hits, “Tightrope,” featuring Big Boi. Monáe’s live performances and musical persona often garnered her comparisons to funk innovator James Brown, and “Tightrope” is a song that embodies this similarity most closely. The song opens with rattling and banging live percussion blanketed with layers of funk guitars. Then, Monáe jumps into the song with a growly, raspy yell, an exclamation of passion and intensity. The chorus’s lyrics about maintaining inner balance during times of strife are quotable and perennially relevant: “Baby, whether you’re high or low / high or low / you gotta keep on the tightrope.” Something I love about the lyrics on this song and on the whole album is that the sentiments behind her words can be applicable to the album’s sci-fi story and to larger life experiences.
Themes of truth, self-compassion, and destiny are woven all throughout the album, but they reach their fiery peak in the wild “Come Alive (War of the Roses).” The song starts out with a rattling, high-speed bassline that is soon accompanied by Monáe’s breathy and hurried vocals. Then the song explodes into bombastic drums, impassioned belts and squeals, and raging guitar solos. The energy of this song is infectious and empowering, perfectly matching the lyrics that speak of insurrection and uprising. Near the end of the track, Monáe’s voice reaches stratospheric heights, almost mimicking the highest notes on an electric guitar, imbued with wah-wah vibrato and bone-chilling intensity.
Other highlights of the album include the Lauryn-Hill-meets-robotic-rap masterpiece “Neon Valley Street” and the post-apocalypic disco banger “Wondaland,” among many others. I have always said that a surefire way to identify a great album is how often your favorite song changes and switches. At some point in time, I have counted each of the songs on The ArchAndroid as my favorites, even (honestly, especially) the overtures. Each second on this album is jam-packed with musical magic that has no expiration date, perennial perfection of the highest order.
The magic this album holds reaches its nth peak with the final two tracks of the album, “Say You’ll Go” and “Babopbye Ya.” The first of these tracks is a jazzy, Wonder-ian opus with beautiful lyrics, an ominous atmosphere, and endless replay value. After referencing Buddhist philosophy over soaring jazz chords and rattling percussion, Monáe sings “Our love will sail in this ark / The world could end outside our window / Let’s find forever / And write our name in fire on each other’s hearts.” Any attempt I could make to try to explain how beautiful these lyrics are would pale in comparison to just reading them. Therefore, I won’t try.
The song ends with Monáe cooing blissful, airy vocals over a rendition of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” This section of the song is as magnificent as it sounds. Monáe’s lead hums and the warm, soothing background vocal lines coat the song’s outro with pure, unbridled love, one of the examples of music’s power to convey feelings without words that get in the way. And I can’t write this article without mentioning Monáe’s unbelievably talented production and songwriting collaborators: Roman GianArthur, Chuck Lightning, and Nate “Rocket” Wonder. This superpowered team is rife with intricate musicianship, cross-decade references, and pure energy. These musicians act like conduits through which Monáe can funnel her intergalactic vision.
Finally, we get to the album’s closing musical extravaganza: “Babopbye Ya.” I feel it’s inappropriate to call “Babopbye Ya” a song — it’s more of a classical suite, with countless shifts in musical structure, what sounds like an ensemble of hundreds of strings and woodwinds, and an arrangement that melds jazz, Spanish lyrics, and irregular time signatures. The suite is equal parts dramatic and touching, danceable and contemplative. “Locked Inside” is my favorite song on this album, but if I were to pick this album’s finest musical moment, “Babopbye Ya” would be at the top of this list. Nearly nine minutes long, “Babopbye Ya” is a world of its own, hosting a lifetime’s worth of musical grandeur and lyrical invention. Monáe belts what I feel is the thesis of this album when she says “I see beyond tomorrow / This life of strife and sorrow / My freedom calls and I must go / I must go / I must go / I must go…” She sings these lines of self-actualization while surrounded by triumphant chord changes, ringing bells, and infectious horn melodies. The song then melts and fades away with piano chords and faint strings guiding the listener to the end of the journey that is The ArchAndroid.
With this album, Janelle Monáe establishes an impeccable music legacy that I believe very few artists can say they possess. Timeless but trailblazing, idiosyncratic but familiar, The ArchAndroid is a feast for the ears, a dazzling assortment of musical journeys dedicated to self-expression and transcendence. The sonic worlds created in The ArchAndroid destroy preconceived notions of pop limitations. I am grateful that at any moment, for the rest of my life, I will be able to visit these worlds through my headphones, and I can spend the day, strolling down Neon Valley Street, visiting Wondaland, watching in awe as Cindi Mayweather gallantly leads Metropolis into an era of peace, liberation, and funk.
Correction: Kellindo Parker is Maceo Parker’s nephew, not his son. Furthermore, Maceo Parker is a funk saxophonist, not a jazz drummer.