Janelle Monae THE ARCHANDROID [Bad Boy Entertainment/Wondaland]


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Sam Stander talks about Janelle Monae's new album, "The ArchAndroid."

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Janelle Monae's singles are certainly snappy and radio-ready, but in the declining years of the album-as-medium, she seems staunchly in the album-making camp. Her debut full-length, The ArchAndroid, is subtitled Suites II and III; it's the second release in her Metropolis series of concept albums, following 2007's EP Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase. Though it technically comprises two installments in the sequence, and its two halves are somewhat distinct, it's useful to think of this record as "The Empire Strikes Back" to Chase's "A New Hope." The plot has been established - android Cindi Mayweather is on the run from the law after the forbidden act of falling in love with a human - so now it's time for Monae to show us what she's got. Which is a hell of a lot, even if it's set in robot-filled Metropolis rather than Cloud City.

Following her groove-oriented earlier singles, it would have been all too easy to lump Monae in with other slightly retro R&B stylists, but there's a more expansive sensibility at work on The ArchAndroid. She does something truly special on the album's most arresting moments, creating a sound that is unstuck in time. Case in point: "Mushrooms & Roses" sounds like some obscure '70s psychedelic soul recording, so ahead of its time as to sound brand new in 2010. But it also sounds unmistakably like the product of a world that has known Radiohead.

One of the album's great joys is its tonal and stylistic diversity. Monae hasn't abandoned the propulsive rave-ups that first won her accolades. The album's first two singles are back to back, and both are bangers: "Cold War" soars from its opening riff into her signature dance beat, while "Tightrope" boasts its own dance move and a typically slick rap from Big Boi. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the low-key "Sir Greendown," a sinuous love tune about the object of Cindi Mayweather's affections.

Two tracks stand out as downright strange aesthetic choices. "Come Alive" is basically a Halloween novelty song, complete with overwrought Monster Mash lyricism - "We're dancing in the dungeon every Monday night." But the whacky creeping melody and morbid imagery don't keep it from being one of the album's finest, catchiest moments. Also unexpected is the lush folk texture of "57821," featuring Deep Cotton, yet another example of Monae's uncanny ability to keep one foot in the past and the other in outer space.

Monae exhibits an impressive range of vocal personalities, a skill that, coupled with the album's distinctive guest stars, infuses the work with a sense of multiple characters. On "Wondaland" she switches between an endearing high-pitched delivery and a more dignified, level voice for a charming comic effect, while on "Oh, Maker" she embraces a sincere soul balladeer's voice. She blends right in with Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes' histrionics on "Make The Bus." Meanwhile, on "Dance Or Die," hip-hop poet Saul Williams continues the rhythmic list-making that Monae performed on Chase standout "Many Moons."

By way of Gary Numan-esque sci-fi novel construction, The ArchAndroid has plenty to explore in terms of lyrical complexity and storytelling, but its concept wouldn't work half as well if it weren't beautifully integrated with the album's sonic construction. As string-based overtures to each suite play out with eerie submerged voices, it's easy to see Janelle Monae in Cindi Mayweather's shoes, breaking away from pop's robotic monotony and charging into the unknown, because it feels right.

-Sam Stander

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