It’s been a long while since I’ve heard an album as cohesive as this; an album that transcends its own medium and becomes something else entirely. This is one of those rare albums that needs to be listened to from beginning to end at least once to truly be appreciated. In much the same way that you lose some of the experience when you enter a movie theatre well after the movie has started playing, jumping into the middle of this is highly unwise. The ArchAndroid, the long-awaited debut work from Janelle Monáe, is an album that everyone needs to listen to. It’s just that good.
It’s hard to classify this album under any one genre. Monáe expertly and effortlessly blends elements of R&B, Soul, Hip-Hop, Jazz and Pop throughout the album that’s as refreshingly original as it is enjoyable to listen to. With these changing genres, Monáe’s voice changes to suit the genre as well, demonstrating remarkable versatility. Her velvety smooth voice is one that never falters and exhibits no harsh edges (unless she wants to). It’s remarkable that she has such unfettered control over her voice, which is something that some pop singers tend to lack at times.
The composition of this album is one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. In the first third of the album, the songs seem to blend effortlessly into one another, as if they are transforming into something else. The change is surprisingly subtle and initially, you may fail to notice it completely until you’re already several seconds into the next song. This became apparent to me immediately as the lively and energetic Dance or Die transitioned into the equally animated and fun Faster. At this point, I looked down at my MP3 player and saw that I had advanced to the next song. As I said before, the transition had been so smooth and elegant that I didn’t even know it occurred.
After the somewhat surreal transitions of the first few songs, things become slightly easier to comprehend but the album doesn’t lose steam in the slightest. If anything, Monáe begins to experiment even more, pushing the boundaries of multiple genres as the record continues on. Thankfully, this is an experiment that largely pays off in grandiose fashion. There’s an ethereal and otherworldly tone about the tracks backing the vocals, coinciding with the character of the Cindi Mayweather, a character who saw her debut in Monáe’s 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). The tale of the ArchAndroid is woven throughout the album and is actually quite interesting.
Great examples of Monáe’s narrative style include the track Locked Inside in which the ArchAndroid herself tells the listener of the citizens’ plight, locked inside the Metropolis, a fascist dictatorship that was referenced in her first EP. The story continues with songs such as Sir Greendown, a story of love and longing and Say You’ll Go, in which the citizens of the Metropolis (and listeners) are invited on a fantastic voyage to Nirvana, the likes of which they have never experienced.
What makes this album great isn’t just Monáe’s smooth and incredibly versatile voice, the excellent production or the singular and well thought out narrative that flows through every track on the album. No, what makes this album so great is the combination of all of these things. The result is an amazingly cohesive debut album that excels both in concept and execution. This is definitely one of the best albums I’ve heard this year and comes highly recommended. This truly is an experience unlike any other you’re likely to experience this year.