Archive for the ‘Janelle’ tag
You know Janelle Monae has a great voice. You can find this out by listening to Metropolis, The ArchAndroid, or any of the individual songs (“Be Still,” “Call the Law”) she’s recorded with other artists. She consistently demonstrates a solid, expressive vocal command in all of her studio tracks. I had the good fortune to attend her recent concert (Saturday, May 7) in Camden, NJ, and perhaps the most astonishing, unexpected aspect of her show – which was excellent in all aspects – was how virtuosic she is vocally when performing live. I mean, Aretha and Mariah level virtuosic. She routinely speckled otherwise already captivating tracks like “Tightrope,” and “Come Alive,” with five-octave flourishes that, simply by virtue of their range and precision, would put the best seasoned rock stars to shame. It didn’t stop there. Her solos, which she worked seamlessly into most songs she presented, embellished tracks with so many different characters, tones, and melismas, you’d swear you were listening to an alien hybrid of all the past few decade’s greatest divas, songwriters, and, yes, musical theatre and opera stars. Her voice and expression are jaw-dropping.
Which brings me to another thing you realize about her music when you listen to it in concert, especially the Metropolis suite (which includes The ArchAndroid): that in a narrative sense, more than anything she has created a space opera. I mean this in the grandest, most Bowiean sense of the term: an extended narrative, complete with dramatic moments, disparate characters, and epic struggle. She plays this for all it’s worth: never does she address you or casually comment on her life or the songwriting process; instead, she immerses the audience in the story she chooses to let her performance tell. I was delighted that she chose to begin her show with the first four tracks to The ArchAndroid, complete with overture. It was a cathartic moment for someone who has listened to that album from beginning to end, uninterrupted, waiting for it to come to life.
And come to life it does. She’s backed by the usual rhythm section, plus an extra percussionist, a four person swing section, two brass players, a fantastic guitarist, backup singers, and, of course, dancers. Everyone, including Janelle herself, is decked out in angled, black-and-white retro-futurist garb that changes from piece to piece. She fleshes out the visuals with a 70′s style video projection in the background and a lighting scheme that usually chooses to flood the hall with a single color scheme or pattern, further highlighting the current mood. She spikes it with dramatic moments: at one instant she was cloaked in black, indistinguishable from her dancers, the next you found her painting on a canvas while singing. From beginning to end, it is captivating.
All of this allows you to see more fully the depth of her songwriting. The more virtuosic elements of the performance, instead of taking your attention away from her songs’ core, only serve to highlight their arc. Songs you think of as grotesque (“Come Alive”) or psychedelic (“Mushrooms and Roses”), are that, but more so. It manages to do what, in my opinion, a good concert should do: bring out an artist’s vision so that it is as alive as it can possibly be.
A side note: while Janelle’s show itself was excellent, I found the pairing with Bruno Mars, and everything that comes with that sort of crowd, to be bewildering and inappropriate. He has a great voice, yes. But everything else about his show, from his eager assumption of the “heartthrob” role (which involved him pelvic thrusting and spouting lines like “Where all my Jersey peeps at?” between every song) to his utterly bland and unadventurous vision of crooner pop-rock, felt out of place next to Janelle. Though there were many Monae devotees, most were there for Bruno, which lowered the potential crowd energy for her set.
I can think of many reasons for why she would choose to tour with him – she’ll make a lot of money (deservedly so), and she’ll almost certainly gain admirers. But the tradeoff was that she wasn’t able to present her vision in as full a sense as it deserved. Because she was the first part of a concert which more prominently featured Bruno Mars, she had to stick to an hour, hour and fifteen minute long set. This necessitated abandoning songs like “Say You’ll Go,” and “57821,” and an encore, which would have been great to hear. I eagerly anticipate the next stage in her career, when she is truly the main attraction of a concert, and can present her creative vision in its purest, fullest form. But this was more than enough for now.
Dance or Die-Janelle Monae ft. Saul Williams by AtothaA
I’m still waiting on Janelle’s promise to make a video and graphic novel chapter for every track in The ArchAndroid – a daunting, but appealing prospect, well worth waiting for. Up until recently I’ve had to settle for the very good, but not spectacular videos for “Many Moons,” which falls in her Metropolis saga’s science fiction theme, and “Tightrope,” which features some cool dancing, sharp attire, intermittent weirdness, but nothing really unique.
Her video for “Cold War,” directed by Wendy Morgan, who also did “Tightrope,” is nothing like anything I’ve seen. It frames itself as a “take” for the music video, which sets up some potentially unsettling, meta viewpoints – are you watching her try to record a video, did they make this take and then decide to keep it, or is it just performance art? I’d put my money on either or both of the second two options. Monae and Morgan, if anything, know what they’re doing.
Morgan wisely focuses the camera entirely on Janelle’s face – those same beguiling, otherworldly eyes that engage you like magnets when you first see them. Pretty standard shot, it seems, but you can’t stop looking at her – she’s boring a hole into you with her gaze and you like it. She throws a few intriguing looks right and left, and then something goes awry – she laughs at something, someone off camera, the focus goes fuzzy, and she clenches her fists to regroup. The music keeps going, but the focus now is Janelle. When a tear runs down her face, when she goes back to “character” – that smooth, cool shade of knowing she puts on from time to time, when she lets the music sing “Bye, bye, bye, bye” and then decides to come in again, these are moments other media rarely provide. Whether it’s sincere or performance is a mystery, and that’s a key part of its appeal.
Thing is, we’re not watching a music video. We’re watching Janelle Monae record a music video. What’s amazing is that that is more intriguing and mesmerizing than any staged narrative could be – you feel as if you’re getting a window, catching a glimpse into what makes her tick. It’s that same mysterious, beautiful face that first attracted me to her music (which, I happily discovered, is some of the best made in the past decade), and it’s that same face that provides all you need to be captivated for a couple minutes – and then probably a couple more when you watch it again. I don’t know who, or what, this woman is, but the video raises some questions. Maybe she really is an Arch Android.
Love is such a novelty
A rarely painted masterpiece
A place few people go or ever know
An underwater rocket love
Exactly what I’m searching for
You’re brave enough to go
Tell me so…
Say you’ll go to nirvana
Will you leave Samsara?
In the words of Dhammapada
Who will lead? Who will follow?
I’m hesitant to choose a single track from Janelle Monae’s masterpiece, The ArchAndroid, and label only that song as “essential.” The truth is, Janelle’s album is one of the best albums released in the last decade, and it should be listened to from beginning to end. It is that rare LP that is greater than the sum of its parts – and oh, what parts it contains. Her music runs a true gamut of influences – Stevie Wonder, OutKast, David Bowie, and the soundtrack to Goldfinger really stand out for me, but everyone connects the album to something different. There’s no pigeonholing it. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is the only album I’ve experienced that comes close to its effect. This woman is for serious.
I can’t tell you what song will strike you most. At first, I couldn’t get the eerie persona and rapid, multi-dimensional harmonic shifts she employs in “Wondaland” out of my head. “Mushrooms and Roses” is generally my soul-psychedelia song of choice. These days, if I only have a few minutes, I tend to play the triple whammy (mixed, really, as one three-part song rather than one) of “Dance or Die” / “Faster” / “Locked Inside.”
There’s no substitute for the entire thing, baby. Though the tracks are good to spectacular in their own right by themselves, each is ideally taken in its proper context: as a part of the whole. But as long as we have to choose, there’s one song that gets to me just a little more than the others – one I can listen to and feel moved by in any mood. “Say You’ll Go,” at its heart, is a love song. Its lyrics are mature and feel sincere. The specifics of the album’s “story” (one that began in her first album, Metropolis) are suspended and Janelle is left to sing poetry you’ll rarely hear with or without music. The words end, and she sings a dreamy scat over impressionist / romantic-era piano arpeggios as a choir that could have been taken from the end of Snow White faintly sighs in, sighs out in the background. Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” lays you down at the end, puts your head on the pillow, and your heart with your loved ones. It is kick-you-in-the-stomach beautiful.