Representing parts four and five of her Metropolis concept series that began in 2007, Janelle Monae continues her attempts to revolutionise modern r ‘n’ b. To date, the subjects of her work have been robots, a façade she has done everything to keep intact, and little changes here in that regard. However, while she previously allowed her own personality to shimmer through into every nook and cranny and he result was a bombastic and exhilarating journey, chaotic live performances and a rapid escalation in profile, this is the very thing that seems to be lacking on The Electric Lady. Where The ArchAndroid evolved, the follow up holds back: timid ballads are in abundance and safe hip-hop replaces fervour and funk. The album has a much more narrow focus than anything we have seen from Monae to date; the genre hopping is kept to a minimum.
Guest appearances from Prince, Erykah Badu and Solange certainly cement Monae’s credentials in her field, but they add little to the album. In fact, at times it seems as though she is overawed by the prospect of recording with such established names and falls into the trap of imitation rather than allowing her own creativity to flow. The genius of The ArchAndroid was the utterly frantic pace and energy that Monae imprinted all over it, its absence is blatant for large parts of the album.
Lead single ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ boasts a funky guitar line and little else, while ‘Primetime’ is a shamefully meek homage to ‘Purple Rain’ with lyrics to make you blush. There are moments that remind you just what Monae is capable of though. ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ is a welcome change of pace, energetic and infectious – think ‘Hey Ya’ shining through a 1950s pop lens. It’s hard not to dance to this one. Similarly, ‘We Were Rock & Roll’ is a necessary departure from the drab openings. ‘Look Into My Eyes’ closes the opening half of the album. It is a wonderful take on Ennio Morricone – the futurism and scope of the track epitomised everything we have come to expect from Monae on the back of one of 2010’s most creative albums and the spectacular display she offered on stage. That energetic fervour was something very special indeed.
From start to finish, The Electric Lady feels like a missed opportunity. It resembles Monae’s earlier work enough to know that the spark isn’t gone, but it fails to reach any of the heights she has scaled before. Overly long and too self-aware in parts, the songs on The Electric Lady simply fail to achieve the dynamism demanded by a performer of Monae’s talent.