She's got the voice of Judy Garland, the eclectic tastes of Prince, and the imagination of George Lucas. Diddy has called her "the kind of artist that changes the game" and "a true visionary." OutKast's Big Boi has labeled her "one of the most inspiring performers ever."
Her name is Janelle Monae, and she has made this year's most imaginative and expansive album with The ArchAndroid.
Maybe its the extended absence of OutKast, the 21st century's most forward-looking rap group. Maybe its the dwindling creativity in mainstream hip-hop. But Monae's fusion of the gloss of pop, the pulsing rhythms of hip-hop, the spirit of funk, and multiple other genres sounds as refreshing as anything out today.
The ArchAndroid is a concept album, built around the story of Cindi Mayweather, her life in the fictional futuristic city of Metropolis, and her journey to the past to rescue a community of androids (your move, Lady Gaga). Monae separates the album into two suites, each beginning with a orchestral overture. Like Andre 3000's The Love Below and Prince's Sign 'O' The Times, Monae experiments with numerous different genres of music on The ArchAndroid.
Keep in mind that this girl is only 24 years old, and that this is her debut studio album. Not only is her work tremendously ambitious, it is spectacular.
On the dance track "Locked Inside," Monae sings with an enormous confidence and effortless flow, sounding an awful lot like Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson in the process. Monae continues the upbeat opening suite with "Tightrope," a fantastically funky track featuring a hilarious cameo from Big Boi, who manages to rhyme "NASDAQ" with "ass-crack." "Mushrooms & Roses," featuring Monae's brilliant take on psychedelic rock, complete with heavily-distorted vocals and gorgeous violin loops, ends the first suite on a very high note.
Monae begins the second suite with "Neon Valley Street." Maybe I'm just a little awestruck by her graceful vocals and the flowing violin arrangement, but "Neon Valley Street" might be the most purely beautiful R&B song in recent memory. The cheerfulness of "Wondaland" and the jazzy composition of "Say You'll Go" are other highlights, but nothing in the second suite (and the first suite, for that matter) quite reaches the majestic nirvana that is "Neon Valley Street."
With her natural talent in singing, Janelle Monae could easily be the next Beyonce or Alicia Keys, and have a successful music career with a huge fan base and a very respectable resume of hit songs. But she takes a different, more challenging route by bending genres, experimenting with rhythms and vocals and building around an album concept much more similar to Genesis than Rihanna.
It's certainly a ballsy move, especially for her debut. But if The ArchAndroid shows us anything, Monae has the once-in-a-generation combination of talent and ambition to become a music icon.