Posts Tagged ‘rhythm’

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Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid (album review.)

May 23, 2010

I literally don’t know where to start with this review.  Comparisons have been made to James Brown (the lead single “Tightrope” has a funky, dirty bass and backchat with Monáe’s band), Judy Garland (“Oh, Maker” features a stately purity of voice in its verses, only to give way to a joyful exaltation of a chorus, and is one of the album’s highlights) and even Erykah Badu (Monáe sings with a knowing voice, sometimes sounding wise well beyond her years while not even connected to this cosmos).  But Janelle Monáe is undeniably her own woman: crazy hairstyles, performing in black-tie tuxedos, employing ethereal instruments coupled with double-time beats, composing her material in suites… It would be audacious enough if it didn’t succeed, if Monáe were above her station with this Metropolis, 28th century high-concept shit.  But she’s not.  Although at times The ArchAndroid feels a bit like it’s overreaching, the vast majority of it is exciting, mindblowing and more than a little bizarre.  This makes it one of the boldest releases to come out in quite a while.

I’m not going to attempt any detail of the story behind this album; it’s only vaguely important to the running order of the songs.  In very brief, Cindi Mayweather was an android who fell in love; the cyber-hunters were invited to hunt her down; she has since discovered the ArchAndroid helmet which displays the city of Metropolis on the top – yep, that’s the album cover above! – and has transformed from pariah to messiah for the robot population of Metropolis.  Monáe creates a textured evocation of this hyper-space reality within her music, and it’s appropriate that The ArchAndroid sounds nothing like anything else in current popular music.  However, its melodies are still catchy, its production tricks are still appreciable (although the music sounds far removed from anything Sean “Diddy” Combs would touch, Monáe is signed to his BadBoy imprint, whose releases normally display impeccable production values – if, at times, little else), and the meanings behind the inventive, often poetic lyrics (from “Say You’ll Go” – “Love is not a fantasy / A haiku written in Japanese”) go beyond the specifics of the Metropolis concept to speak more generally of love, society, and human emotions and situations.  In other words, Monáe hasn’t concept-ed herself into oblivion; the songs can still have meanings to each individual listener, which is important because we still need to relate in order to truly engage with the music.

Moving to the specifics of the music on The ArchAndroid, it’s a hefty album, comprising two suites that are much weightier then Monáe’s The Chase EP; that disc had three songs which were swift, exciting and irresistible.  The special edition had two extra non-concept tracks; a plea to the President for social consideration, and a beautiful, restrained cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Monáe may not be a vocalist in the same way as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, but she has an extraordinary control of her instrument, and displays its versatility when songs require it (similar, in a way, to Toni Braxton or Sade).  On The ArchAndroid, Monáe alternately displays grace (“Oh, Maker”), subtlety (“Sir Greendown”), uninhibited release (“Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)”) and an old-school sensibility that fuses scat, Broadway and Latin rhythms (epic closer “BaBopByeYa”).  Suite II (the first suite of The ArchAndroid) is generally more immediate and accessible to the uninitiated listener: after a classical intro (although its concept hangs together flawlessly for most of the album, the instrumental interludes may be slick but they are still unnecessary filler!), Monáe gets straight down to business with the help of spoken word artist Saul Williams for “Dance Or Die”.  Beats fibrillate below Monáe’s haughty poetry, and before the listener knows it, the song segues into “Faster”, into “Locked Inside”…; before you know it, you’ve reached subdued ballad “Mushrooms & Roses” and Suite II is nearly over.

The seamless melting of one song into the next is a neat production trick, but one that we have seen before.  It has its risks, since the listener has to pay attention to his iPod, CD player or media player of choice in order to determine where one track ends and the next begins.  If the songs are dull, they risk totally going over the listener’s head.  Luckily, the majority of The ArchAndroid has enough memorable hooks, production tricks and bizarre sections to stick in the mind and merit repeat listens.  Suite II is far stronger than Suite III for this however; Suite III, although shorter, is much denser and ethereal. Although Suite II had some lovely slower material (“Oh, Maker” and “Sir Greendown”), Suite III seems weighed down by the lack of upbeat or midtempo songs.  “Make The Bus” is an ok effort but hardly lives up to the breathtaking pace of Suite II; “Wondaland” seems altogether too precious.  However, Suite III comes into its own as it reaches its conclusion: “57821” (the serial number of the robot Cindi Mayweather) begins to engage the listener with its subtle, undulating backing, before the majesty of closing tracks “Say You’ll Go” and “BaBopByeYa” unfurls.  In all, Suite II is stronger and more addictive listening, but Suite III has its moments despite its more downbeat demeanour.

Why does it all work? It’s beyond me, as Janelle Monáe seems to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this album – in terms of lyrics, vocal approaches, production tricks, musical genres, concept… It’s a miracle that it doesn’t sound overblown, desperate or self-important, but for the most part – it doesn’t.  Only on “Wondaland”, “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Neon Valley Street” does Monáe sound a tiny bit like she’s faking, stalling while she scrabbles for a new idea with which to blindside us.  The vast majority of The ArchAndroid is not only severely impressive, but sounds genuine.  Which makes Janelle Monáe a hugely talented, innovative young woman, and one of the best new artists to emerge in recent years.  Take a listen to The ArchAndroid and prepare to be both mentally and aurally stimulated.

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this is lycanthropy.

July 30, 2009

Quick, watch this before someone takes it off youtube! Apparently, that happens sometimes! (they did it to my Whitney Houston video, because obviously my singing her song is going to damage her sales.)

The song has grown on me immensely, and Shakira looks flawless.  But looking at the way she dances in the video, and combining that with the ideas contained in the lyrics, it gets me thinking of the primal sexuality that we keep locked up by day and let loose at night.  When I go to a club with my friends, I tend to prefer straight clubs because a) the majority of my friends are straight, and b) I can’t stand the bitchy queeny atmosphere, the meat-market stares, nor the awful mega-cheese of Bristol gay clubs – therefore my dancing is somewhat inhibited and I tend to play it cool (R&B / hip hop kinda promotes cool nonchalance over insane all-out dancing anyways).  But nevertheless, I’ve always been a good dancer because I guess I have an innate sense of rhythm.  I always get randoms trying to dance with me in clubs, and other guys often compliment me on my dancing (which I find crazy, because for a guy to compliment another guy without knowing them or having an ulterior motive of some sort is practically unheard of).  I’ve been dancing since I was a child, but just as I learned to sing from Mariah Carey albums, I learned to dance from MTV.  The best teachers are your idols, and my recipe for success has always been study, study, study, incorporate a range of everything into your repertoire, and then just feel the music and let what comes out come out.  That’s the way I sing, and that’s the way I dance – it’s automatic, it’s instinctive, and it’s usually more powerful than a rehearsed performance.  Just as I have performed at numerous concerts singing and playing instruments, I have done a few dance displays and was the first male ever to win my high school dance competition (to Brandy’s “What About Us?”), so I guess I know what I’m talking about.  But at the same time, I could never teach anyone to sing nor to dance, because I just do what I do and feel the music and make my body talk.  I have heard accomplished instrumentalists say that they learned how to make their piano or their guitar talk (I read a quote from Bruce Springsteen in a book in HMV the other day), and that was a powerful yet simplistic explanation of how someone plays their instrument.  So I guess the best way for me to explain the way I ‘do’ music is that I make my voice or my body talk and express itself to the music.

When Shakira says that “this is lycanthropy”, I understand that she’s referring to unleashing your inner predator (in her case, the ‘she-wolf’).  I often find myself with my ipod at night dancing around, and the most intoxicating thing for me (which is the feel I’ve tried to capture on my forthcoming album) is to be outside in the dark, with the fresh air caressing your skin and nothing to distract you from the music as you stand / move around in the moonlight.  If I’m in a more contemplative mood, I’ll smoke my cigarette while gazing out over the garden just listening to the music, taking in the lyrics and sensing the feel of the music.  Music is the perfect backdrop for me (and I presume, many many people!) to rediscover their sexuality and sensuality, and get in touch with the inner person who is subdued during the hectic day-to-day.  This is why I find music so powerful.

If I am getting ready to go out, be it night or day, and I want to feel good about myself, I’ll dress up in my nicest, most flattering clothes, make sure I have a label or two, make sure my hair is fierce, my skin is tanned and glowing, and my jewellery is on point.  But I need a soundtrack to complete my attitude and back it up.  If I am thinking about someone, I’ll associate certain songs with my emotions and, if the person is lucky / significant, with them.  Music has the power to inspire so many feelings in me, and it can make me feel sexy, and bolster my confidence and go and get that guy whom I’ve been lusting after, instead of just contemplating it.  After all, we are in disguise during our daytime personas; once the moon rises, we have full licence to let our nocturnal predator out to play and attract our prey with the way we make our bodies talk.  I believe that dancing is one of the purest forms of expression, and the physicality of someone can be so powerful, so magnetic that it can attract you towards them instinctively.  So we may be humans, but we are still animalistic in our bodies, our spirits, and in the way that music can make us react.