Saturday, September 21, 2013

Electrifying Lady

The album begins with a brief overture, inspired (according to the inscrutable liner notes) "by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington."  OK, whatever.  A more accurate description would have included John Barry, the great film composer responsible for, among many other accomplishments, the scores for the first couple of decades of James Bond films.  But that matters little because the bottom line is that, on first listen, you couldn't fault someone for thinking, a la Greil Marcus about Dylan in 1970, "what is this sh*t?"

And then, 90 seconds later, comes the sound of one of the nastiest beats and guitar licks you've heard in quite some time, followed by Janelle Monae's strong, confident voice:

I am sharper than a razor
Eyes made of lasers

At that point you stop wondering what it all means; all you know is that you're going to believe anything coming from this young woman's voice.  And after the first chorus, when you think the stakes couldn't possibly be raised any higher, you hear the Purple One himself, contributing both vocal and "background acrobatics" (I think that means guitar solo).  But this isn't the Prince of "Purple Rain," this is a throwback all the way to the Prince of "Dirty Mind," when there was but one thing on that young man's mind, that one thing prompting Robert Christgau to comment, "Mick Jagger might as well fold up his penis and go home."  No doubt about it - you don't need to understand the lyrics to understand that this is a dirty song, both in music and words.  It's called "Givin Em What They Love," and you can almost imagine Monae saying to herself, "Yeah, Robin Thicke, I got your blurred lines right here, buddy."

It's also the best song on the album, and the most exciting, but what makes "The Electric Lady" one of the best albums of the year is that there are quite a few other songs that almost match it in quality and tone.  And if you've seen the clip of Monae performing "Dance Apocalyptic" on Letterman, you know that she's also a performer cut in the James Brown mold, leaving absolutely nothing on the stage.

Throughout the course of the album's 14 songs, Monae manages to evoke memories of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Anita Baker, and of course Prince, all the while sounding as if she made all this stuff up herself.  Not every song matches the quality (or the sheer vibrance) of the best songs (the aforementioned two, plus "Q.U.E.E.N.," the title track, "Can't Live Without Your Love," "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes"), but they are never less than interesting, and the "interludes" (which contain the album's narrative, which frankly makes no sense to me) are entertaining if completely nonsensical.

"The Electric Lady" is not a perfect album, and there are times when it seems as if Monae hasn't yet figured out exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.  It's probably a little long, which hardly makes it unique in this era of hour-plus records.  But these are all minor quibbles, because this also most definitely sounds like a great artist trying to find herself, not unlike Prince back in the late 70s and early 80s.  And if it all comes together someday and she releases her "Purple Rain," well watch out - because that will be truly scary.

No comments: