In a world of illegal downloading and instant gratification, there is little appreciation for the concept of a full length album. Or so says Janelle MonÃ¡e‘s management team: “The concept of the suite release was inspired by the observation that the youth of the iPod generation no longer buy or listen to entire albums. They listen to playlists. They grab their favorite three to four songs from a particular album, add those to a playlist, and then discard the rest of the album like yesterday’s news.”
For that reason, MonÃ¡e’s team has decided to opt for a “suite” collection; quarterly releases that feature a small sampling of tracks juicy enough to both hold the public’s interest and leave them begging for more. Last Tuesday saw the release of MonÃ¡e’s first collection: Metropolis: The Chase Suite.
The album is a concept centered around fictitious Metropolis, a world based on the 1929 silent film bearing the same name. The conflict? Cindi Mayweather, an Alpha Platinum 9000 android, has committed the crime of falling in love with a human, an intolerable act. Now, the chase is on amongst the aliens of Metropolis to find and destroy Mayweather’s cyber-soul. Still following? Good, now hang on a bit longer.
The album opens with “The March of the Wolfmasters,” a cheeky intergalactic announcement that formally commences the hunt for Cindi Mayweather. As soon as the track fades out, the album surges into its full element: “I-I-I’m an alien from outer space,” Monae stutters into the opening of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!” before the operatic backing vocals crash against an unstoppably catchy guitar-synth riff. “Y’all better shut up,” she suddenly announces mid-track, as the song moves swiftly into the album’s surging organ fueled soul fest, “Many Moons,” which is reminiscent of a Gnarls Barkley track on speed.
After “Cybertronic Purgatory,” the album’s sobering and operatic vocoded half way mark, “Sincerely, Jane” supplies a fresh, new resurgence of energy. MonÃ¡e pierces the airwaves along with spirited horn flourishes in this swinging, bossa nova drenched burst of sound. It’s a clash of genres, wandering between elements of Motown, jazz, and classic pop standards. The follow up however fails to maintain that energy. “Mr. President,” is an uneven, if not misplaced political skewering that doesn’t quite pack the same punch as the rest of the album. It’s a valiant effort and a beautiful Motown mid-tempo, but the lyrical content feels more like a slightly misguided step than a meaningful contribution to the suite.
Nevertheless, she redeems herself in the end with the climactic “Sing,” a mellow ballad that captures MonÃ¡e’s inner Garland with emotion-wrought delivery as she croons: “Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it’s breaking.” It’s both fractured and haunting, similar to something that might have been found on Amy Winehouse‘s Frank. “Thank you, thank you very much,” she whispers as the track winds down, making it clear that we’ve already touched back down to Earth.
Employing a rich, soulful sound and heaps of confident showmanship, it becomes clear why James Brown and Judy Garland are ranked amongst MonÃ¡e’s greatest musical influences. She comes armed with an assured, silky smooth voice that can belt within an impressively controlled range, yet she’s never afraid to throw caution to the wind and riff her way up and down a track with ease.
With all this talk of cyborgs, androids, and electro daggers, MonÃ¡e still manages to merge space-age surrealism with real world emotion without falling prey to cheesiness. The concept truly works here, and a complete story is told within the constraints of the album. Interweaving the sounds of classic seventies soul, today’s electro and synth sounds, and throwback classic pop rhythms, there’s little that hasn’t been covered within this seven track triumph.
Despite a great familiarity with the kinds of music being used within each song, I have honestly never heard anything like this album before. Janelle MonÃ¡e isn’t just genre-bending–she’s inventing. A surefire contender for album of the year, Metropolis: The Chase Suite is a shining powerhouse of cybertronic invention and lofty imagination. I don’t quite know what to expect next from Janelle MonÃ¡e, but then again, I don’t think anyone does. Well, except for Cindi Mayweather.