Janelle Monae: Visionary Express
Prestigiously described by rap-superstar-cum-industry-mogul Sean “P.Diddy” Combs as “a true visionary - one of the most important signings of my career”, 27-year-old singer/songwriter/producer/dancer and self-styled “high funkstress” Janelle Monáe this month returns with her eagerly-anticipated second full-length LP “The Electric Lady”. Which - the follow-up to her double-Grammy-nominated 2010 debut album “The ArchAndroid” - is currently being pioneered by the thought-provoking, powerful funk groove of its Erykah Badu-featuring offshoot single “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Born Janelle Monáe Robinson on December 1, 1985 in Kansas City, Kansas, Janelle would go on to study drama at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy before eventually moving to her current home of Atlanta, Georgia, where she would soon go on to found her own independent record-label - The Wondaland Arts Society - with like-minded young artists. A move which in turn ultimately brought her to the attention of chart-topping rap duo Outkast’s Big Boi. A figure who would prove instrumental in the advancement of her career - not only through him inviting her to appear on Outkast’s Platinum-selling 2006 “Idlewild” LP, but also through him the same year introducing her music to the aforementioned Sean Combs, who immediately signed her to his Atlantic Records-affiliated Bad Boy label. For whom Monáe would go on to release the 2007 Grammy-nominated EP “Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase)” followed in turn by her aforementioned 2010 debut album “The ArchAndroid”. Which - described as “psychedelic soul with a sci-fi twist” and lyrically dealing with the fictional futurist concept of Janelle’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather becoming a messianic figure to the android community of Metropolis (as a sequel to the theme of said previous EP) - would reach a respectable Number 17 in the US while also charting across Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, the UK and The Netherlands.
Since which time Monáe (who has been named alongside the likes of Parliament/Funkadelic funkmaster George Clinton and cosmic jazzman Sun Ra as an innovator within the forward-thinking “Afrofuturism Movement”) has gone on to attain her biggest mainstream success to date, as featured vocalist on one of 2012’s biggest-global smashes - American rock/pop trio fun.’s “We Are Young”. Whose instantly-catchy chorus found it hitting Number One in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland while also prestigiously garnering three Grammy nominations along the way.
…Which in turn brings us conveniently back to today. As an ever-charismatic Ms. Monáe - visually famed for her immaculately-coiffed hair and signature black-and-white tuxedo wardrobe - holds court with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis within the opulent luxury of her five-star Central London hotel. As she happily discusses her aforementioned new album (whose guests - alongside aforementioned neo-soul Queen Erykah Badu - impressively include global rock/funk icon Prince and contemporary R&B chart-topper Miguel) plus her early background in Kansas and ensuing rise to multi-award-winning international acclaim.
How Janelle feels in general about her new album musically and lyrically
“Well, the fact I took a more executive-production role this time meant I was able to produce some of my true musical heroes. Like Erykah Badu, who’s an amazing artist - and so for her to be gracious enough to trust me and let me guide her through the song was GREAT. And while my last album “The ArchAndroid” was about self-realisation and realising that you have this unique ability and these super-powers, “The Electric Lady” is to me more about just being unafraid to use those powers to actually DO things with your HANDS. Plus it’s also REBELLIOUS, in that there’s a lot of PROTESTING going on. You know, I talk about how I feel about politics, how I feel about religious beliefs, how I feel about sexuality... While people also get a chance to understand my position on things like break-ups - which is that you have to move ON - and my position on love in GENERAL… So yeah, I think it’s just an album that does highlight and showcase my work very WELL. I was able to pick up the guitar, I did a lot of engineering… You know, I was able to contribute in a large WAY!”
The impressive list of guest-artists she’s brought on board this time round
“Well, as I say, Erykah (Badu) guests on the first single “Q.U.E.E.N.”. Which is a song that was basically inspired by our private conversations about our views on community, women, being leaders... You know, it’s definitely a track that’s meant to provoke dialect and get people talking… Then I also got to produce and duet with Miguel - who’s an amazing writer and producer - on a song called “Prime Time”. Which is about the importance of the sharing of love-making between two people and how it’s a gift to be preserved and truly respected and handled with great CARE. Because as an artist, you know, while you’re out being The Electric Lady or whatever, everything becomes all about THAT. And so we do need to be able to de-compress and take the time to EXPERIENCE things like love - which is a side of me that I think is important and you’re gonna see more OF... Plus I also worked with Esperanza Spalding, who’s just a consummate artist all-ROUND. Like her playing is most definitely state-of-the-art, plus she’s opening a lot of doors for female musicians, PERIOD. And so to produce her was like a dream come TRUE... Then of course with this album I also got the chance to produce a bona fide all-time music ICON - i.e., PRINCE! You know, it’s not every day that he collaborates - and so the fact he trusted me does make me feel very honoured and HUMBLE! Plus I’m also very honoured that he and I are now great FRIENDS! And when a friend - someone who cares about your career and wants to see you go far and to push boundaries and shake up the world - is happy to give their time to contribute to your latest project, you really do end up creating something truly GREAT together!”
How Janelle’s humble beginnings in Kansas still influence her artistry
“I grew up in a very community-oriented, working-class family. My mother was a janitor, my biological father drove trash-trucks, and my stepfather - who treated me just like his own daughter - worked at the POST Office! So, because I feel very connected to the working-class, I do pay homage to them by wearing a black-and-white uniform every time I perform and whenever I’m out-and-about. Because I still consider what I do as work, even if it is IS very much work that I enjoy… I mean, to me I make music for the PEOPLE - to uplift them, to motivate them, and to be a beacon of HOPE for them… I basically represent for individuals who are gonna turn NOTHING into SOMETHING.”
How she came to pursue a career in music
“I actually decided what I wanted to do very early on in life. In fact, when I was about nine years old I had a meeting with my family, told them what my plans were, and asked them to get on board… And they’ve been very supportive ever SINCE! I mean, I actually started out going to The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. But though that whole experience did prove to be a great life-lesson - I was able to get out of Kansas and outside of my comfort-zone and meet other people who were not like me and didn’t have the same morals and values - at the same time I didn’t wanna get too influenced by standardised teaching. I knew I had my own ideas and I wanted to make myself AVAILABLE for that. Which is why I ended up leaving and basically just following my instincts by moving to Atlanta, Georgia! You know, because my inner-compass and my spirit basically led me there, that’s where I ended up starting my own recording-label - Wondaland Arts Society - so I could really develop myself as an artist.”
The story behind Janelle first hooking up with Outkast rapper Big Boi in 2006
“At the time we were very much in do-it-ourselves mode. We weren’t trying to look for a major label to sign us, but just speaking directly to the people and pressing up our own CDs. You know, I was basically selling my CDs outside the boarding house I was staying in with five girls - and it was around that time that Big Boi first heard the music. And, because he was really inspired by it, he wanted to help and support what it was we were doing as a COMPANY. So he - along with (fellow Outkast member) Andre 3000 - allowed us to get on the Outkast “Idlewild” album, for which we produced a song called “Call The Law”... And we’ve been like family ever SINCE! Because Big Boi was very instrumental in introducing me to a wider audience of people outside of just the Atlanta crowds I’d been playing to. Plus he was also the one who brought my music to the attention of Sean (P.Diddy) Combs, whose Bad Boy label we’re of course now with.”
The album “The Electric Lady” is released September 9. The single “Q.U.E.E.N. Featuring Erykah Badu” is out now, both through Atlantic/Bad Boy.
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Words PETE LEWIS