Thursday, 9 September 2010

Album review: The Archandroid - Janelle Monae (Bad Boy/Atlantic)

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. I was certainly guilty of this a few months ago when I failed to listen to Janelle Monae's first full album upon release thinking it would be another sub Erykah Badhu neo-soul album. Having finally given it a listen, I can confirm that in places that this is exactly what it is. Like The Love Below Andree 3000's contribution to Outkast's landmark double album Speakerboxx it takes a combination of stabbing electro beats and Barry White esque seduction ballads to create a hip hop sound for couples to listen to in the modern home.

However, Archandroid is so much more than that. It starts with a classical overture and at times sounds like the aforementioned Outkast, Elbow, Fairport Convention, Karen Carpenter and Ella Fitzgerald. Monae has created a record of immense ambition which effortlessly glides between dispirate genres and reveals herself as a major talent.

While many white female soul singers (Winehouse, Stone et al) gain kudos for 'sounding black' Monae manages to achieve the opposite - sounding like a authentic white folk singer, or La Roux or Debbie Harry. For some reason this provides a thrilling juxtaposition where Monae can turn her hand to pretty much any sound and sound like the real deal.

Big Boi guests on the single Tightrope and this is one of a number of examples of a savvy ear for pop. This approach takes many forms; showtunes, r&b, folk, lounge, campfire all in the mix but never too dispirate not to gel. The production throughout is impressive. Prince springs to mind - not so much for the specific sound but because of the ability to excel in all areas. An example of this diversity is on Oh Maker - a track that if sung by a man would be compared to Sufjan Stevens or John Grant. As it is the Carpenters are the obvious reference point were it not for a hip hop beat and an effortless falsetto. Another example is Come Alive (war of the roses) a spikey punky number reminiscent of the best of Blondie, Le Tigre or the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs.

Monae is happy to let tracks sprawl where need be which sounds drifting in and out and this combined with her ability to provide good tune create an album that will appeal across the board from a ten year old child to the most serious of record lovers (I note on Amazon fifteen people have 'reviewed' this and without excemption every one has given her five stars). Everyone will find something to love in this record and many will find much. There have been some fine debut albums this year - but this bears comparison with all of them and for sheer ambition and execution might well exceed them.

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