‘Conceptual’ is an over-used phrase, especially in pop, utilised to imbue an album with greater legitimacy, and, more importantly maybe, to please those critics who like a little fat on their meat. But does it matter that an album is a concept, and how does that differ to a unifying narrative? Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid is the continuation of her Metropolis concept – appropriated from a 1927 German expressionist silent sci-fi film by Fritz Lange which explores capital relations – namely Suites I & II. The basic premise is that a Saviour android, Cindy Merryweather, has been sent back from the future [28th Century] to the Now to liberate the people of Metropolis from “The Great Divide” – a secret society which aim is to suppress civil society and love. If that sounds a little wow. It is. Initially this album is overwhelmingly abstruse. Firstly, the spectacle of the cover art: Monáe wearing an afro-futuristic crown, fashioned from what looks like Jean Paul Gaultier’s galactic couture for The Fifth Element. Bearing a distinct resemblance to the H.R. Giger-designed KooKoo cover concept for Debbie Harry’s debut solo album (though, the less we say about the content of that album, the better…) From the outset we’re aesthetically-informed of how alien this album is going to be.
Yet for an album that is driven by some sort of alienesque conceptualism, this album is definitely a creature of historicism: Eighties funk and R’n’B melded with Seventies pastoral freak folkery, glam and prog rock. Monáe the “Princess” to the Frankenstein beast of (the artist formerly known as) Prince, Vashti Bunyan, Sun-Ra, George Clinton and Marc Bolan. She, like OutKast and Erykah Badu, is the panacea to the sameness of Noughties autotuned R’n’B. Monáe recognises that in order to bring about change, you need to embrace the past beyond a simple retread. The ArchAndroid is exactly that. Its freneticism and hyperactivity is the glue which binds the album together, it eschews the normal sequencing of tracks with every track being a sub-plot in the bewilderment. This is why it can feel overwhelming at times – tempos, genres, voices twist and turn, punctuated with two interludes which inform you that you’ve moved from Suite II to Suite III.
The former suite is the strongest starting with the bassy Dance or Die, its sublime ESG-jitteryness accentuated with Monáe’s stuttery vocalisation (and the poetry of Saul Williams), segueing into Faster, which isn’t actually as fast as its predecessor but features the brilliant line “You kryptonite my life, every night.” Cold War and the bee-bop of Tightrope are included in Suite II – both used as singles pre-empting the album – but they are by no way the best this album has to offer; there is no filler here. Neon Gumbo’s backward vocal trickery could have come straight from Kate Bush’s The Dreaming (another concept album concerned with emancipation.) On any other album something as mystifying as Neon Gumbo next to the freak folk via Destiny’s Child’s of Oh, Maker just wouldn’t work, but Monáe has the bolshiness to carry it off with absolute aplomb. Mushroom and Roses marks the end of Suite II with syncopated “rawk” and choral. It’s literally trippy. The second chronicle in The ArchAndroid is shorter but is no less sublimely sweet: Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal pops up on Make the Bus, oracular electro, with both Barnes and Monáe illustrating their brilliance in how they present their voice. Monáe has a wonderful range but she is no mere vocal acrobat, she inhibits and acts out every story in this epic tale through her voice. Which is much easier said than done: Monáe’s voice can paradoxically seem entirely detached from her and completely her own at the same time. 57821 continues this channelling the haunting of The Stranglers’ Golden Brown whilst pondering if Monáe is “the One.” She surely is. Wondaland is the highlight of Suite II, everything seems to work – she’s being childlike, playful, experimental, and seemingly not of this World.
The ArchAndroid is distinctly – and refreshingly – desexualised, playing again into the alien concept. Much of the lyricism is opaquely and emotively politicised, inferences about oppression and opportunity. Too often the oversexualisation of R’n’B seeks to diminish its message, being risqué yet far from risky. Because of this you almost feel like Monáe has something to lose, and it is definitely not her virginity, it’s her being. This album highlights how little people dream about the future anymore, as if Fukuyama was right about being at the end of History, popular music is stuck in the present thinking it is the future, and more dangerously it can’t change it. It’s the continuing Weltanschauung of vanguards such as Bowie and Sun-Ra and his Arkestra: absurdity is easily mocked and parodied but putting yourself “out there” like the way Monáe does in this album is to be commended. What’s more Monáe does this absurdity in the framework of perfectly accessible pop – this is not a niche album – this is a full-on POP album propagated with her personality throughout. Which is exactly what she set out to do, claiming that she wants to make music “that moves and inspired the people that I grew up with, working class people…I create music to celebrate our differences, our individuality, and unite those people.”
All this brings us back to the point of concept albums. Conceptualism was a philosophical outlook concerned with understanding and intermediating the problem of universals. That concepts are of the mind, neither real or just simply words. The ArchAndroid is a concept album concerned with understanding the problem of many small universes: it is a call to arms veiled under the vaseline of Androids and Space, but she’s functioning in the now whilst dreaming in the future. A nice reflexivity for change. So that’s the point of a concept album. Done. She’s made that bus to the 28th Century.