Album Remarks & Appraisals:
The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) is the debut studio album of American musician Janelle Monáe, released May 18, 2010, on Wondaland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records. Production for the album took place at Wondaland Studios in Atlanta and was primarily handled by Monáe, Nate "Rocket" Wonder, and Chuck Lightning. It consists of the second and third parts to Monáe's Metropolis concept series. Incorporating conceptual elements of Afrofuturism and science fiction, The ArchAndroid continues the series' fictional tale of a messianic android and features lyrical themes of love, identity, and self-realization.
The album debuted at number 17 on the US Billboard 200, selling 21,000 copies in its first week. It achieved moderate chart success and produced two singles that did not chart. Upon its release, The ArchAndroid received general acclaim from most music critics, earning praise for its conceptual themes and Monáe's eclectic musical range. It has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary R&B Album.
"Janelle Monáe has long been the toast of certain figures in the music industry. Her 2007 EP The Metropolis Suite bagged the Kansas-born singer a Grammy nomination, while Big Boi and Sean 'P Diddy' Combs are vocal fans; the former inviting her to guest on his albums and the latter declaring her "one of the most important signings of my career." Her stop by The David Letterman Show (watch on YouTube) was perhaps the single most exhilarating breakout performance in recent history, and guests on her debut album include said member of OutKast, hip-hop poet Saul Williams and even indie wunderkinds of Montreal. The result is a dizzying fusion, marked by its lofty ambition and stunning central performance.
The ArchAndroid continues the saga Monáe originated on her Fritz Lang-influenced previous release, wherein her alter-ego Cindy Mayweather comes to terms with her messianic status as the 'ArchAndroid' of the record's title. Set in a far-flung dystopian future and talked up by its creator as less an album, more an "emotion picture", it certainly comes off a little... highfaluting, at first blush. Yet the kind of hubris Monáe exemplifies ("this album is for the people," she notes) is inseparable from her work; what's more, it is pretty much justified. Suppression may be the key theme explored, but the whole affair is so stylistically diverse and outright enjoyable that any notions of posturing quickly become redundant.
Monáe and her Wondaland collective span styles and epochs seamlessly over these 18 tracks, touching on everything from fantasia strings to psychedelic trad-folk, cabaret jazz to traditional R'n'B... heck, even goth and Eurotrance get a look in, on the shtick-y Come Alive and megawatt Cold War, respectively. In hands any less talented than these the outcome might prove interesting, but here it is positively intoxicating; Monáe is just as comfortable throwing diva-like shapes over BaBopByeYa as she is trading lines with Kevin Barnes in Make the Bus or channelling James Brown on the irresistible Tightrope.
Across the breadth of the record songs and icons are recalled and reinvented, flickering like ghosts you recognise but can't quite place; Monáe's skill is to fashion them into something bordering indefinable. She is an easy, natural star, and The ArchAndroid is a kaleidoscopic, breathless run through the genres and eras that have inspired her." - BBC
"Some years the most celebrated albums are perfect jewels whose brilliance derives from focus and consistency. Guardian critics' two favourite albums of 2010, however, are more like treasure chests, where the whole point is abundance and some stones may be more precious than others. Yet they point in opposite directions: Kanye West's towards the celebrity self and Janelle Monáe's towards the wider world - Me v Us, as Neil Tennant recently put it when talking about modern pop.
At just 25, Monáe is absurdly, vertiginously talented. Although 2007's Metropolis: The Chase Suite had a cult following, a lot of people's first exposure to her was a YouTubed appearance on Letterman in May, performing Tightrope. Tiny in her tuxedo, she had that rare and compelling combination of razzle-dazzle exhibitionism with a sense of something mysterious and withheld. It was, in the words of the James Brown routine she unapologetically homaged, Star Time.
Nina Simone used to complain that though she moved between styles people always labeled her jazz because she was black. The same goes for Monáe and R&B. It's part of the mix on The ArchAndroid but it's uselessly reductive as a general description. You could extrapolate whole albums from single tracks here: a tough, cerebral hip-hop record from Dance Or Die, an updated Innervisions from Locked Inside, a freaked-out funk opus from Mushrooms & Roses, and so on. She belongs to the tradition of OutKast, Prince, David Bowie and Funkadelic - artists who command so many genres that they become one themselves.
The ArchAndroid is proudly OTT, as any record that purports to tell the story of a time-travelling android freedom-fighter from the year 2719 is bound to be, but its excess comes off as generosity rather than bombast. On first exposure the collision of oddball aspiration with old-fashioned showbusiness determination to entertain is dynamite, but it reveals its richness over time. It's an album big and spacious enough for you to wander around in, noticing fresh marvels (like the hymnal folk of 57821 or the Bowiesque Of Montreal collaboration Make the Bus) with each circuit. And though the Broadway-trained Monáe might, with less control, be a mere showboater, shifting roles with look-what-can-I-do alacrity, her performances are oddly egoless. Each change of tone - cutesy to spooky, playful to histrionic, joyous to dazed - is calibrated to serve the song rather than the singer.
Instead of trumpeting solitary genius, The ArchAndroid celebrates history and community. In interviews Monáe is quick to position herself as a member of a collective, the Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society (along with her co-writers and producers, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder), the product of a good education (she thanks her old school teachers in the sleevenotes) and the beneficiary of a torrent of stimuli, from Fritz Lang to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Harlem Renaissance to Afro-futurism, Salvador Dali to Philip K Dick. Yet the influences never overwhelm her because the current that crackles through them is fresh and unpredictable and true.
No other album this year seems so alive with possibility. Monáe is young and fearless enough to try anything, gifted enough to pull almost all of it off, and large-hearted enough to make it feel like a communal experience: Us rather than Me. She may yet surpass it - let's hope so - but for now, this is one hell of a show." - Guardian
Rolling Stone (p.78) - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "[O]n ferocious songs like 'Come Alive' and the manic neojump blues 'Tightrope', Monáe's charisma and energy are so forceful that the jumble makes perfect sense."
Spin - "Janelle Monáe boasts so much shape-shifting talent that she had to invent an android persona just to begin to accommodate it."
Billboard (p.37) - "[A] sprawling journey of futuristic pop....Throughout the set, sweeping and prancing strings add beauty and drama to a vibrant storyline that centers on love."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.53) - Ranked #30 in Mojo's "The 50 Best Albums Of 2010" -- "A breathtaking collision of mutant R&B, indie-pop, lysergic psych-rock, hip hop and classical music."
Paste (magazine) (p.84) - "THE ARCHANDROID is a fully immersive, theatrical experience. It's a near-perfect R&B album; hell, it's a fantastic hip-hop, psychedelic, neo-soul, dance and orchestral album too."
Pitchfork (Website) - "The first listen is mostly about being wowed by the very existence of this fabulously talented young singer and her over-the-top record; every subsequent spin reveals the depths of her achievement."
Uncut (magazine) (p.34) - Ranked #43 in Uncut's "The 50 Best Albums Of 2010" -- "[A] hyperactive conceptualist who drew on Bowie and musical theatre as much as Outkast..."
Liner Note Author: Max Stellings.
Photographer: Andrew Zaeh.
Janelle Monáe's first proper release for Bad Boy contains the second and third suites to her Metropolis, introduced in 2007 with an independently released EP (which Bad Boy reissued in 2008). The ArchAndroid is a natural extension of the retro-futuristic singer's earlier material, an energetic mix of soul and new wave led by "Tightrope," a single featuring OutKast's Big Boi, her earliest supporter.
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