Here’s the million dollar question: when is hip-hop indie, or credible for an indie audience? For years indie hipsters have kept to a completely different realm away from the hip-hop world and Jay-Z even intimated that this was still the case. Now, I’d like to think I’m open to all sorts of styles. I love electronic but I’m partial to guitar bands and I have a massive soft spot for funk and soul. So when Janelle Monae came around and produced her genre-spanning album “The Archandroid” I was intrigued.
The record is conceptual, in that it tells the story of our androgynous heroine’s android alter-ego but to be honest this idea is completely overshadowed and becomes an after thought in an album that captivates from start to finish. It’s composed in 2 defined “Suites” in which Monae straddles the genre lines. Suite 2 is the most accessible and enclosed within the hip-hop/soul genre. She is at her best on “Cold War” where her vocals are powerful, confident and not strained. She has a classic voice that’s timeless yet at the same time very now, as proved in her rapping on “Dance Or Die” and the faster moments of “Tightrope” where she collaborates with Big Boi.
Suite 2 isn’t entirely conventional though. While there are some killer moments Monae also slows the pace on “Sir Greendown”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a 40s Hollywood movie while “Neon Gumbo” is wonderfully experimental in it’s way that it cuts up Janelle’s voice to haunting effect. “Mushrooms and Roses”, with it’s distorted vocals, wouldn’t seem out of place on an indie record and Monae handles the dark tone wonderfully.
Suite 3 is interesting in it’s ideas, proving that this is an album of two halves that are equally good. “Wondaland” is weird yet jaunty, echoing Saint Etienne with it’s sprawling and ethereal vocal performance and soaring strings while closer “BabopbyeYa” cements Monae’s position as a soul siren. Interestingly, it is her collaboration with Of Montreal that is this album’s weak moment. Monae tries to hold her own on “Make The Bus” but her partners hijack the song and turn it into something strange that jars with the overall tone of Suite 3. It is ironic that Monae can be indie but when she recruits an indie band her plan falls apart.
But on the whole “The Archandroid” is a beguiling piece of work. It’s one of those “something for everyone” albums that also maintains a sickeningly cool credibility that any indie kid would be proud of. Janelle Monae is the great uniter.