It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Janelle Monáe has a lot to live up to. Following up her critically acclaimed debut The Arch-Android (an album that combined a cleverly thought out concept about a time-travelling android freedom fighter with genuinely spellbinding music) was always going to be a tricky task, so it’s a delight to realise that sophomore effort The Electric Lady is nothing less than a gleeful showcase of Monáe’s talents as both a vocalist and a songwriter.
The first half (Suit IV) is home to most of the album’s more radio-friendly tracks, where her eccentricities and the album’s overall concept are cleverly merged with glossy production, pop melodies and guest features from the likes of Solange, Erykah Badu and Prince. Despite the fact that the album is home to a couple of seemingly obvious hit singles, it’s questionable as to whether Monáe’s deliberately trying to chase commercial success with this album – she’s certainly in a position to make the most of a golden opportunity, but despite her debut featuring plenty of chart-friendly songs (Cold War, Tightrope, Faster) she never really set the singles charts alight. It could easily be argued that her dedication to the overall concept would suggest that she’s perfectly content to be a critical darling.
Highlights of Suit IV include current single Dance Apocalyptic (which combines the sound of Motown with playground chanting and a ukulele), the more traditional sounding but surprisingly tender PrimeTime and the soulful groove of Electric Lady. The album is broken up by three interludes depicting a radio show, but they feel unnecessary and annoying. Without them (and the overtures that introduce each suit) the album would still be fourteen tracks long, so it hardly needs padding out and all they really do is serve to ruin the album’s momentum.
The second half (Suit V) is full of tracks that feel much more introspective and personal to Monáe herself. Ghetto Woman is an obvious homage to Stevie Wonder, but also features lyrics about Monáe’s mother – it’s a real contender for the title of album highlight. Tracks such as Victory and Can’t Live Without Your Love initially sound rather unexceptional, but they slowly unravel and turn into tracks that showcase her excellent vocals.
Monáe’s tendency to hide behind fiction can be a little frustrating at times, with album closer What An Experience proving that a simple yet warm and soulful melody is often all that’s needed for a track to be enjoyable. Her dedication to a brilliant (albeit complicated) theme could be acting as the barrier that prevents her being exposed to a wider audience, but nevertheless The Electric Lady is executed with the poise and self-assurance of a superstar. Although this album isn’t quite as genre-bending as her debut, it certainly proves that Monáe may well end up being one of the most important and influential artists of the decade.