Who is Janelle Monáe and Why is She on Everyone's "Best of 2010" List?

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By "everyone" I'm referring to the Tribune and Sun Times music critics who both had Janelle's album, "The ArchAndroid", as their #1 albums of the year.  If two individuals who are actually paid to evaluate music have chosen "The ArchAndroid" as their top pick of the year (turning green), why does it seem like no one has ever heard of her?  She's also been nominated for Best Contemporary R&B Album for the 2011 Grammy Awards, so we've established that she's well qualified.

I actually had an introduction to Janelle midyear.  My sister sent me a list of MTV's "Best of" albums for the first six months of the year (odd list), and "The ArchAndroid" was on that list.  I sampled a song from it ("Tightrope") that she sang with Big Boi, half of the Outkast duo, and loved it.  I'm sorry to say, however, that I didn't follow up and buy the whole album until about a week ago.  This is a good time of year to catch up anyway since there aren't a whole lot of new albums being released.  It also means that for better or worse, Janelle helped me through my pre-Christmas week, busy and a bit stressful.

"The ArchAndroid" got off to a good start with me because it was only $7.99 for 18 songs.  If you don't feel like doing the math because it's winter break, that's only $0.44 a song- amazing!  She could give a lesson to the greedy Michael Jackson handlers who are charging $11.99 for only 10 songs ($1.20 each), but I digress. 

My first couple listens were while I was working in the kitchen with my 16-year old, who has blossomed into a perfect sidekick to her mom while cooking.  I kept waiting for her to comment on the music because it is pretty...different.  Some of it has sort of a futuristic sound to it, some is more like a symphony, some is rap, some made me feel like I was in church, and some sounded like it was part of a spy movie from decades ago.  In short there is some of just about everything.  Is that part of the problem?  Is it hard to identify with a single listener?

Janelle describes her albums as "emotion pictures" and wants each to be a journey.  "The ArchAndroid" follows up her debut EP, and this is how it's explained on her website:  "The album realizes the next chapter in the story of Cindi Mayweather, the heroine of Monáe's debut album Metropolis. She has been sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide, a secret society using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages. 'It's said that when the ArchAndroid returns, it will mean freedom for the android community,' explains Monáe. 'Cindi Mayweather realizes that she is indeed the ArchAndroid.'" 

Okay, so I'm not much into science fiction, but now I'm kind of curious to listen to the album knowing the background and intent.  I listened to it without knowing anything about it and it has grown on me- I love the diversity of it and it does feel like a journey, especially since the songs roll into each other with no distinct start and stop between them. 

I did a little research on Janelle herself and learned that she is 25 years old and originally from Kansas City but relocated to Atlanta to develop her music career.  She hooked up with Big Boi, who introduced her to Sean "P./Daddy/Puff/Diddy" Combs, and he subsequently signed her to his label, so she has some pretty strong backing.

All this leads me back to my original question: why has no one heard of Janelle Monáe?  Answer: I don't know.  I could definitely imagine some of her songs being played on the radio even if a person wasn't interested in all 18 songs.  My prediction is that she'll start to get a little more buzz as the Grammys roll around.  One thing that distinguishes her from someone like Rihanna, for instance, is that she has a rather androgynous façade, so she doesn't have the overt sex appeal that might sometimes help album sales.

I still like "Tightrope", which is probably the most popular song from "The ArchAndroid".  Other favorites were "Dance or Die", "Faster", "Oh, Maker" and "Wondaland", although that last one didn't strike my fancy right off the bat.  It's hard to single out particular songs that I liked because the more I have listened to the album the more I have enjoyed the whole thing.  I would recommend buying "The ArchAndroid" and then plan to spend some time with it.  It might be interesting to listen to it as the "emotional picture" that Janelle intended. 

Here is Janelle singing "Tightrope" on Letterman.  Enjoy!

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  • I wish I could find the video but Big Boi described P.Diddy's approach with Janelle Monae is to allow her and her music to grow organically as opposed to over-saturating her.

    I think the value that Bad Boy and Diddy have provided is being able to get her in front of the relevant audiences. She was on Letterman to promote her album but perhaps more importantly she was also on Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

    Quite frankly, I'm actually quite surprised to see Diddy truly trying to enable her success without inhibiting her creativity.

    She's got a fantastic career ahead of her and it might be okay if she's not every billboard left, right, and center.

    At first I didn't really pay enough attention to the album. But a couple months later, I actually took the time out to properly listen to it and I was blown away.

    I ended up buying it as a Christmas gift for my sister.

  • In reply to borg:

    I totally agree with you. I'd rather see her do her own thing and not be as "popular" than sound like everyone else and be more mainstream successful. When I hear someone so good it's frustrating that more people aren't listening when you know that what they're listening to on the radio isn't nearly as good.

  • Also, I mentioned Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance cause her and her band looked to have been the most expressive in those performances (they're both on YouTube somewhere).

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