R&B singer Janelle Monáe indulges in retro styles and sci-fi musical theater
Janelle Monáe will tell you she’s a lot of things — robot, superhero, alien from outer space — and that’s all fine and good.
What is she really? A good singer and a beautiful young woman — and she matters because she desires to be an alternative voice in mainstream R&B.
Frankly, there’s no pop genre more boring than what passes for R&B on MTV and Clear Channel “rhythm” radio, where female groups are assembled by outside forces into Maxim Magazine photo ops (Danity Kane, Pussycat Dolls) or promote sexual subservience to shocking new lows (hot singer Casha’s wailing “Give me the business!” on vapid rapper Yung Berg’s momentary hit “The Business” is a sure sign of the apocalypse).
The 23-year-old Kansas City-born Monáe makes music that sounds like the past and the future. When the present is so bad, why not?
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Her new seven-song EP “Metropolis: The Chase Suite” is half and half. The futuristic part sounds digital and up-tempo, clearly inspired by what André 3000 from Outkast was doing from 2000 to 2006 (from “Bombs Over Baghdad” to “Hey Ya!” to the soundtrack for “Idlewild”).
The nostalgic part sounds like a soul band, similar to Amy Winehouse but without the pathos. Monáe’s elastic voice is better than average but hard to pick out of a lineup; it helps that she’s willing to act with it.
On “Sincerely, Jane,” she rips the line “Are we really living or just walking dead now?!”out of her nose with Broadway brass; she floats around through a version of “Smile” (from the Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times,” made famous by Nat “King” Cole and Michael Jackson) with the lazy swing of a coy jazz singer. She’s packaged “Metropolis” with sci-fi imagery and a radio-drama-style story line.
Monáe is almost a star, thanks to some help from hip-hop moguls in Atlanta and New York City. Outkast rapper Big Boi (the less weird one) gave her an early co-sign, and Bad Boy Records CEO Sean “Diddy” Combs gave her her own label, Wondaland Arts Society; both men executive produce “Metropolis.”
It’s a safe bet next time she’s in Seattle, probably after her debut full-length album comes out in January, Monáe won’t need an introduction. And it won’t be for just $10.
Andrew Matson: 206-464-2153