Janelle Monáe Goes Over the Top With Ambitious Sci-Fi R&B Concept Album 'The ArchAndroid'

Janelle Monáe

The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy)

Finally: An R&B singer with something interesting to say. For way too long, contemporary R&B has been in a creative free-fall with fans who are all too willing to accept stylistic clichés over actual soul, and stars who don't offer much more than hyperactive stage extravaganzas, overwrought vocals, and inane lyrics. Enter Atlanta-based Janelle Monáe, who has her own freaky thing going on that's completely beguiling.

For her first full-length CD—co-produced by Sean "Diddy" Combs, of all people—she's chosen to create a science-fiction concept album about robots, inspired by Fritz Lang's silent epic Metropolis. ("Suite I" of this tale composed her initial EP, also named Metropolis.) It's completely over the top—but in creative ways. The album is intended to be listened to from start to finish like the rock operas of yore (take that, iTunes generation!), complete with symphonic overtures, interludes, and even backward masking (yes, there's an LP version). Musically, it's all over the map, from dancefloor grooves ("Dance or Die") to feel-good pop ("Faster"), from R&B singles ("Locked Inside") to nu-jazz epics (the nearly nine-minute-long "BaBopBye Ya"). The standout tune is "Tightrope," a four-minute funky stomper that's immediately catchy—complex yet fun. And despite the fact that Monáe can belt it out like certain other "divas," she knows enough not to do it in every song—which reflects a refreshing sense of artistry over bombast. Spanning so many styles may cause a little consumer confusion, but ArchAndroid makes for a unified presentation, thematically linked by the concept of overcoming one's minority status, whatever it may be; it's an impressively ambitious debut.

One more thing: She's a truly captivating live performer. Check YouTube for clips of her tearing apart the 2008 Afro-Punk Festival, Bonnaroo 2009, and even Late Night With David Letterman. She can do more with just a microphone stand and saddle shoes than Christina "Bionic" Aguilera can with an army of 30 back-up dancers, fireworks, and a lack of pants. Janelle Monáe is the real deal, just in time.