monae_bustfeatureI realize that this post is at least two years late, maybe even five. But even though Janelle Monae is no longer ‘new’ to the music scene, nevertheless she does believe, and claims to have participated in, time travel. So this slowpoke post is already forgiven.

Monae is currently making headlines because of her work with the Black Lives Matter movement, which got me re-listening to her music. What I discovered was that even though every major music reviewer covered her “genre-defying” 2013 album, The Electric Lady, few have attempted an in-depth interpretation of that which has been heralded as “empowering” and “one of a kind” (AV Club). It came as a pleasant surprise, to me, to find that The Electric Lady, impenetrable as it is alone, stems from a world that Monae has been building for years, beginning with her first official EP. She has created a multi-episode sci-fi saga over the course of three records, and even though The Electric Lady gained her a lot of attention, and even though she has been associated with the likes of David Bowie and Prince, it seems like the discussion she generated was relatively short-lived and somewhat…surface-level.

Although there is no way to convey Monae’s entire artistry in one blog post (the best you can do is just sit and listen to the albums), her sci-fi story focuses primarily on the fictional character Cindi Mayweather, an android (a manmade, humanesque robot) who falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown and subsequently discovers her destiny to reconcile humans and androids, both of which have been separated by a totalitarian regime controlled by a secret society called The Great Divide, all in accordance with the prophetic Book of Zoman. Let’s start from the beginning.

Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007)

Although it’s ‘just’ an EP, this could be my favorite of Monae’s three major works. This is our introduction to Cindi Mayweather, the android messiah. In terms of storytelling, it’s the most straightforward of the albums: there’s a traceable chronology from one song to the next. The first track, “March of the Wolfmasters,” serves as a prologue, explaining that Cindi’s unbridled love, in the futuristic realm of Metropolis, merits capital punishment:

“Android Number 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District…. Happy hunting!”

Essentially, Cindi’s love crosses The Great Divide, thus breaking the law. The punishment is disassembly, which is android-speak for death. She is caught by the bounty hunters and cast into Cybertronic Purgatory! But first, a chase. “Violet Stars, Happy Hunting!” is the following track on the Metropolis EP, and we hear Cindi’s voice for the first time. On the run, she is the “other,” the outcast who doesn’t belong. The chase transitions seamlessly into “Many Moons,” which was nominated for a Grammy and explores countless themes including slavery, technology and, most important for us, the shackles of the human condition: Monae sings, “You’re free, but in your mind your freedom’s in a bind.” This lyric suggests on the one hand that the insidious Great Divide might be using mind control; it also suggests, however, that the root of evil is internal, in our minds. Even if the hypothetical governing faction established freedom as a core value, we would still be bound inside — as all of us already know.

The climax of “Many Moons” is a long list of everything wrong with the world, from corruption to illness to insecurity, and it ends explosively in the “emotion picture” / music video, inserted below, which is worth every second of your time.

The video depicts messianic Cindi performing onstage at a droid auction; as she sings about the evils of the world, she has some kind of electrical seizure and passes out, spread-eagle. The video, I believe, actually invites us to relate her to the crucified Christ, short-circuited by the sins of the world: as evidence, consider the references to the biblical Book of Revelation as the Master of the Show Droids approaches on a white horse, surrounded by cyborg brides. The Punk Prophets take off their masks, seeing “unveiled.” As the Droid Master closes in, Cindi sings, “When the world just treats you wrong, just come with me and I’ll take you home. No need to pack a bag.” The lights flicker from her eyes, and by technological standards, she is dead.

The next track is called “Cybertronic Purgatory.” Presumably Cindi has been caught and disassembled by The Great Divide, and now finds herself in limbo, in the land of the android-dead, separated from her true love, Anthony Greendown. She sings in an echoey, faraway voice: “Sorry I ran away. Me lost, too. Sorry I’m in a maze….” The original EP ended with the next track, “Sincerely Jane,” which isn’t a resurrection by any means but rather a funky, futuristic lamentation. Very much on par with a theology of the cross, the messianic Cindi is disassembled, and hope seems lost, and all that can be asked is for the Lord to have mercy. Monae sings a scratchy refrain halfway through: “L-Lord have mercy, have mercy, have mercy. Lord have mercy. (Are we really living or just walking dead now?) L-Lord have mercy.” That’s a lot of mercy requested; surely even more will be given, but we’ll have to wait for the next installment. The future remains unclear; control must be surrendered.

The updated EP adds two songs here, neither of which seem to really apply to the sci-fi storyline: a letter to the president asking him to address the world’s ills, and a melancholy rendition of Chaplin’s “Smile” which sounds so sad it could play at a funeral. Is death really the end of the story? The EP ends.

The ArchAndroid: Suites II and III (2010)

Monae’s first full-length album opens with the words: “It’s your time: lead them both back to one.” This is Cindi’s call to rise, somehow, from Cybertronic Purgatory and reconcile humanity and androids. In a Grammy interview, Janelle explained about Cindi Mayweather:

cindy_mayweatherThe ArchAndroid is very special because she’s similar to the ArchAngel in the Bible, or Neo in the Matrix, and I was speaking about, how are we all going to live in a world with androids? How is this all going to work? There has to be a mediator between the two, between the haves and the have-nots, between the oppressed and the oppressor. And Cindi Mayweather is that. She is the mediator. There’s a quote in Metropolis by Fritz Lang, that I was inspired by, that says the mediator between the mind and the hands is the heart. She is the heart.

The ArchAndroid isn’t as explicit in its Christology as the EP—there’s a lot going on here, and it reminds me, in a way, of TS Eliot or Ezra Pound, incorporating different voices, historical references, even foreign languages.

A huge portion of the album is dedicated to the illustration of the unconditional love that Cindi has for Anthony Greendown. Here is also the introduction to Wondaland, a mythic place where outcasts feel safe but also inspired. Monae has created a real-life Wondaland Arts Society in Atlanta where she and a small group of “beautiful weirdos” create music. They explain:

“We have created our own state, our own republic. There is grass here. Grass sprouts from toilet seats, bookshelves, ceilings and floors…. In this state, there are no laws, there is only music.”

In the story, it’s an idyllic place where androids and humans live together in peace. It’s a place explicitly for outcasts, for those who have no inner ring.

But, of all these themes, the most significant part of the album is the unveiling of Cindi as the ArchAndroid, the messiah, the savior of the androids. Monae told Artist Direct:

“The story of the ArchAndroid is one that’s been going around for centuries in Metropolis. Lots of people didn’t believe in the ArchAndroid at all. It’s very similar to the Archangel or if you think about Neo in The Matrix—it’s ‘The One.’ For the android community, the ArchAndroid signifies freedom and is a beacon of hope because they’re locked in spells cast upon them and they’re discriminated against. They’re not treated fairly at all, and they’re just excited about the ArchAndroid coming.”

Even as this album’s storyline spirals off from the chronology of the Christian story, becoming fully its own, the themes nevertheless propel towards it. Salvation and freedom are repeatedly addressed, and especially the idea that both will be given to the lesser party, the oppressed.

A personal favorite is “Cold War,” which was written in honor of anyone (all of us) who has ever felt ostracized or marginalized. Some poignant lyrics include:

Bring wings to the weak, and bring grace to the strong.
May all evil stumble as it flies in the world.
All the tribes will come, and the mighty will crumble.
We must brave this night and have faith in love.

Again, we find Monae evoking Revelation; this time, it’s her reference to all the tribes coming, which sounds similar to the verse that reads that “every tribe, tongue, and nation” will come stand before the throne of God. For Monae, it’s the extremity that’s important, the ultimate-ness of it. For her, the end of all things is love. The ArchAndroid’s primary theme is love. Not a dinky sort of love, but real love, that which pours from sacrifice.

Love is not a fantasy, a haiku written in Japanese,
a word too often used but not believed.
Witness the interaction of the flood, the sea, the sky, the dove.
Time erodes the shore but not our love. (Say You’ll Go)

These primordial images of floods and doves, all roped together by love, remind me that the earthy and often abrasive story of the Bible also pivots around love.

The ArchAndroid ends, not with a crucifixion like the EP, but with a goodbye. Anthony Greendown and Cindi part ways, and, even though they were united by love in the land of Mushrooms (see track 11), we are still waiting for redemption.

The Electric Lady: Suites IV and V (2013)

This is the album for which Monae is most famous. It illustrates the revolution started by Cindi, also known as the Electric Lady; more than anything, however, this album gives us a more in-depth portrait of the ArchAndroid herself. Monae explained to Rolling Stone: “It’s the origin story, the part where the ArchAndroid realizes she has superpowers. It’s about breaking down stereotypes, fighting against oppression, trying to save the world.” This salvific figure, the charismatic Electric Lady, was born of the least of these: Janelle Monae herself, who, though she often has the look of a super-being, is a human like the rest of us. She told Pitchfork:

The Electric Lady was inspired by paintings. Every night I would perform, I would paint on a canvas while I would sing… this image of a female body, a silhouette, every single night… I came up with the title in therapy, actually,” she blurted out, seemingly by accident.

Therapy, she tells me, has become an important part of her life since the release of her debut album, 2010’s The ArchAndroid. “It was like I had a computer virus in my brain and it needed to be fixed,” she says.

“I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first,” she continues. “In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible. There’s a stigma.” Monáe, who grew up in a devout Christian family, still says grace before meals. “But I think God blesses us with brains to find medicine, to find cures, and I don’t believe in not using that. Therapists are there to listen.” She also talks about grappling with a split from a boyfriend in between albums, offering a rare revelation about her love life (she’s been known to tell interviewers that she dates cyborgs). “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she says, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”

Surrendering control and accepting the necessity of therapy, even with its stigma, gave birth to The Electric Lady. In other interviews, when talking about the origins of the Electric Lady, Monae always says something along the lines of: While I was painting, the words “electric lady” came to me. Monae’s language isn’t one of creation but one of reception. Pitchfork continued, saying Monae battles perfectionism:

“I think I have OCD,” she says…. “I really don’t like that, and I’m working on the balance of knowing that some things are just beyond your control and you’ve got to be in the moment and role with the punches.” The Electric Lady has her channeling demons, both big and small…. The Electric Lady reflects the growing pains of an artist trying to reconcile a handful of goals.”

She’s trying to create art, convey a liberating message, and also get her artistic self on the charts in order to “redeem” popular music. Taken together, those are some tall orders.

81pXYwpkQwL._SL1425_After The Electric Lady came out, Monae was a more popular name than ever; she was going strong. But remember “Cold War”: “Bring wings to the weak, and bring grace to the strong.” Even the strong need grace. Even Monae needs grace—especially given her heightened expectations for herself.

There’s a lot of cool stuff in The Electric Lady, but most of that was covered when the album came out and made waves two years ago. And despite everything on the past three albums, I haven’t yet spied any particularly meaningful redemption (aside from the fact that so many of the songs just make you want to dance!). Luckily, the Cindi saga has promised seven suites: Suites VI and VII remain. Monae is currently working heavily with Wondaland Arts Society, producing music with and for her friends, and of course is involved in politics, raising awareness about social injustice.

But the promise of the ArchAndroid never fails to excite me. I’m waiting for the full revelation of Janelle Monae. Yet even if Monae did release a finale album (no clues suggest she will), I probably still wouldn’t completely understand the vast and complicated world she has created. On her tumblr, Monae discusses “the legendary Skull of Night Thrashings which now sits on the master study table of the Wolfmaster Number 1, President, King & Lord, Oddpa Crix. According to the Book of Zoman, this android skull is a historic relic….” Her world is ever-expanding.

In the end, this saga is probably most helpful in reminding me what I don’t understand rather than what I do, because while there’s a lot to unpack about Monae’s albums, there’s also a lot to surrender. Countless unsolved mysteries remain, countless open questions. I think that’s what The Electric Lady is about, in the end: giving way to the unknown which guides our lives. It’s true that I won’t be able to understand every piece of the puzzle. But it’s also true that I don’t have to. I can simply hang onto the truth Monae won’t stop singing about: that the ArchAndroid is trustworthy. That she has come, and she is coming again, and now, praise God, it’s time to dance.