Out of This World
With her new record, 21st century phenomenon Janelle Monae provides the soundtrack for her own Space Odyssey
Story by Angela Cravens / Photography by Marc Baptiste
An alien walks among us. She’s taken the form of a pop star (all the better to reach total world domination), though we’d be mistaken to assume she’s just another songstress on the scene with a serious voice. To know Janelle Monae’s music is to have her take you firmly by the hand and lead you into outer space. And though you may not have the foggiest idea where exactly you’re going, trust that she’s got it under control—and the ride will be sweet.
The past year has seen Monae traveling the globe in support of her acclaimed debut album Metropolis. She also returned to The Wondaland Arts Society (aka her studio at home in Atlanta) with her ever-present collaborators Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, where they dreamed up her newly released second album, The ArchAndroid. Monae describes the past year as both tumultuous and transformative. “I definitely experienced a period in my life where people did associate me with being crazy in a sense,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Though others might call her creative process “crazy,” she describes the period of downloading the songs and story that were to become the album as haunting and transcendent, at times waking up in the middle of the night to write down a persistent melody, at others, not sleeping at all. “We were listening to what our minds were telling us, but even more so from our hearts and our souls,” she says. “We let the music come out and made sure we were jamming while we were doing it.”
The result is something more than an album: it’s a sensory experience.With lush vocals, complex, orchestral arrangements and a sci-fi back-story, The ArchAndroid is more like an epic movie to be experienced aurally. It’s also something to be shared. “Community is the most important element,” says Monae, always quick to credit her collaborators, though she is the face of Wondaland. The crew thinks of the sound as an “emotion picture.” She explains, “We wanted the feeling to compliment that so we brought on the Wondaland Arch Orchestra to play on a lot of the tunes. We wanted people to move to the jam and dance and really connect to the music.”
Whereas Metropolis was a soaring, cerebral collection straight out of left field, The ArchAndroid, with its continued saga of Monae’s alter ego, Cyndi Mayweather, somehow brings it all back down to earth. With its organic, booty-shaking jams and notes collected from far-reaching locales she visited on tour, the songs are moving and meditative. They blend a touch of Bacharach with Blade Runner, and though they describe another world, the songs are ultimately accessible and utterly danceable. The ArchAndroid is somewhere you want to be.
Coming into a place where she trusts herself—trusts the vision and trusts her voice—is remarkable for a young woman of 24, especially a woman operating in the unforgiving world of pop music. But clearly, Monae isn’t your ordinary diva. Her signature look of tuxes and spectators in stark black and white (Vogue swooningly described it as “so 2710”) was orchestrated by Monae in order to bring the focus away from her looks and onto what matters—the music. Similarly, the songs of ArchAndroid are focused on trusting oneself even if that means swimming against the status quo.
To hear Monae describe it, this is just the way she’s always been: “I’ve always felt like I was meant to be an artist and I was meant to have a voice and to express that—not a lot of people accept that responsibility but I do. I know it’s up to me to always think ahead… and give a different perspective on the way that we make life and make art.”
JANELLE WEARS: ERYN BRINIE JACKET, VICTOR DE SOUZA PANTS, RALPH LAUREN BOOTS, LACRASIA GLOVES, ESSEX DELUXE RIDING CAP.
STYLIST: KITHE BREWSTER