By Niy Birden2018 is truly off to a great start in musical terms. Although the Grammys hit quite a sour spot with their very confusing awards ceremony this season, the results of intersectional feminism and the #TimesUp movement have nonetheless paved a way for female artists to have a more direct platform perfect for their voice. The Grammys were a testament to that.
Janelle Monae is no exception, but is without a doubt one of the rare artists with a genuine spirit. Her story though, is what is most fascinating for her reappearance in music:
If you are like most, Janelle Monae was first introduced to us with her massive single “Tightrope”, which uses musical elements made famous by James Brown, Little Richard and Chuck Berry to form a dance R&B sound as quite an oddity in the early 2000s. The song, using a dance move as a metaphor for one’s own doctrine, has since then become a staple of Monae’s and is what introduced many to the world as a funk-tip toeing signature song for the musical magician.
This was our introduction to Janelle’s altar ego and the center of the stage, Cindi Mayweather, a rogue android in a dystopian future who has been declared as an outlaw.
But if you are a mega-fan of Janelle’s, you’ll know very well that the introduction to this songstress was more like during active Outkast days, when her song was added on Big Boi’s Got Purp? compilation album, and soon after made two appearances on Outkast’s Idlewild album, which was actually a soundtrack to their film of the same name. Not long after, she released her first official solo album, which is a very rare copy of her earlier works.
Pairing with Big Boi and Diddy not long after, she then found her voice as Cindi and was officially introduced through her EP Metropolis, introducing the world of the heroine. From that, we got songs such as “Violet Stars Happy Hunting” and “Many Moons” (which was nominated for a Grammy), showing us the earliest signs of her Motown and Bowie- master combination of artistry. Janelle, as a black and white suit, bowtie-standard uniform-wearing, African American female singer was quite the breath of fresh air in a world of early 2000’s glamour dresses, 6 inch stilettos and up-skirt paparazzi shots on tabloids. And, she rocked her natural hair in some of the most creative ways. She was immediately seen as a role model for young girls.
Not long after, she released her first studio album The Archandroid, giving us Tightrope, and most notably “Cold War” and “Mushrooms and Roses”. Cold War is similar to Many Moons with its funk-rock interpretations, but with a more melancholy take on socialism. Mushrooms and Roses is a nitty gritty punk garage slow jam, with vintage static effects in her voice. If anything assured us of Janelle being more than pop-famous, it was definitely that.
Cut to a few sponsorships, tours and a sporadic but timeless collaboration with band Fun., for which they won a Grammy through the song “We Are Young”, and Janelle was on the move once again with The Electric Lady, who was a more freed and self-assured Cindi. Mentored by her longtime friend Prince before his untimely death in 2016, this album explored traditional R&B on songs such as “Primetime” with fellow R&B crooner Miguel and had an undeniable purple aesthetic in songs like “Electric Lady”, “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Give em What they Love”, all of which she collaborated on with Solange, Erykah Badu, and the late singer himself. The album, also set in the same style of Arch Android with its accompanying Suites and 2-part sections, was just another example of Janelle’s mastery of musical concepts and projects.
Now entering 2018 we’ve gotten to see Janelle play many rolls, both figuratively and literally. From Cindi Mayweather, all the way to the NASA mathematician/engineer Mary Jackson she portrayed in Hidden Figures, and her supporting role in Oscar-winning film Moonlight, she’s shown that not only does she have a connection to stories, but she also has a connection to liberating them. With her recent singles, she just may very well be immortalizing that very action. Especially sexual.
It is worth it to say that in the past, Janelle was never vocal about her own personal sexuality, but always gave strong support of sexually-liberated women, whether they were heterosexual or homosexual, and everything in between. Much of the media was perplexed with why such a vocal activist and artist was so quiet about her own personal life; you never knew who she dated, if she dated at all, or what she thought of either sex. The closest we got to a confirmation of our perceived thoughts on her sexuality was when she said that she “only dated Androids”.
But now more than ever, Janelle seems to be enthusiastic about her sexual preference and its power, shown in her newest singles “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane” from her up-coming album Dirty Computer. She bodily premiered both days before the premiere of the mega-hit film Black Panther, which coincidentally also focuses on Afro-futurist narratives.
The accompanying trailer for the album is a whirlwind of hype, and for all the right reasons. Clearly set in a dystopian future, we see various flashing scenes of Janelle portraying apparent numerous characters, including Cindi, who is shown on a levitating medical chair in an empty, blue room. We also see her running wildly with a crew of people, one of which caresses her on a beach, a few scenes from Make Me Feel, a shot of her clearly being physically handled by a guard, and finally hear a monologue from the singer:
“They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special. And then you were lost-sleeping. And you didn’t remember anything at all.”
With warped synths and snappy percussion, Make Me Feel is undoubtedly a funk record inspired by her contemporary and mentor, Prince. It was later revealed that Prince actually did work on the track with the artist, which explains the sexual lyricism and guitar homage in the official video. Janelle goes all in with the record, which of course is nothing new. The song is definitely a daring one for her-blatant cuss words, sensual whispering in the background with mentions of “sexual benders”, a Beyonce-like moan-singing aesthetic. And somehow it genuinely keeps the listener interested, especially when the song suddenly crashes into an energy-powered bridge worthy of every 80’s memory.
The video is nonetheless as entertaining. It features Janelle and an obvious female love interest (actress Tessa Thompson) socializing with various personalities in a club, one of which is Monae herself, expressing the erotic lyrics of the song. Monae has again completely transformed for this, as her video alter-ego goes through a variety of 70’s-aesthetic outfits, most notably being her sparkly skin-tight leggings and bedazzled face mask. She even makes a well-fitting comeback to her dancing roots with the impressive footwork and choreographed backup dancers.
Django Jane on the other hand, is Janelle’s return to rap, which she has previously used in her previous projects. Surprisingly though, she like many of her fellow modern R&B artists, utilizes a trap sound within her percussion. It creates an interesting environment for the flow she presents, which has themes of female empowerment and black unity.
For those who have never heard Janelle rap, her gravely and nearly bass-voice comes as quite a shock next to such significant words. But for those who are familiar with her use of rap, this is not anything new in the slightest, even when compared to her natural speaking tone (or at least the speaking tone that she portrays while on film in her signature class act).
Having a full rap from Cindi is indeed a treat, and thus helps her place herself as a figure of authority within this context. When she says “Let the vagina have a monologue”, you know for sure she isn’t playing around. This again, is nothing new, as one of her most common phrases that she’s been quoted saying (and proclaimed in a #TimesUp speech at the Grammys): “We come in peace, but we mean business”.
Another entertaining aspect of Janelle is her ability to deliver sharp quips that are obviously meant to be playful jabs, but simultaneously still present her as a very well-versed hip-hop head. Hip hop is notorious for being based on the delivery of attacks to one’s opponent during battles, and Janelle is no stranger to that concept. Within the first 30 seconds we hear lines such as “And we gon’ start a motherfucking pussy riot-or we gon’ have to put them on a pussy diet”, once again using rap, which is obviously male-dominated and showing the context of it into play for her even more obvious feminism.
But what truly seals the deal is not just her sporadic WTF moments in the track. She shows off an insane ability to continuously deliver top-caliber rhymes. It makes one wonder what would be the result of a Cindi Mayweather rap album.
That being said, Janelle is giving us quite an introduction to her new musical chapter. Critics and fans are all anxious to see if we will get another Prince feature, or even a feature film to go along the album. Die-hard fans are also curious to see if this project counts as one of the “10 movements that will be created and destroyed in 10 years” that was mentioned in her visually-ambitious music video for “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Janelle Monae’s third studio album “Dirty Computer” is anticipated for a release on April 27th.