There's a thin line between creativity and insanity, and it's not always easy to know which side Janelle Monáe's on. You can see her walking that line in the asylum setting of the new video "Tightrope," the first single from her stunning album The ArchAndroid, which was released last month through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Records.
Featuring Big Boi, one of the 24-year-old artist's early mentors, the song is a high-wire trip through the sly rhythms of OutKast and raw funk of James Brown, with Monáe showcasing her phenomenal range while never losing the sense of cool restraint that permeates even her most energetic work.
The rest of ArchAndroid is no letdown. "Cold War" employs an equally infectious rhythmic foundation, but adds layers of backing vocals and synthesizers to its lyrical call to arms ("This is a Cold War / You better know what you're fighting for").
The sound is original and unmistakably Monáe's, but its extraordinary diversity invites comparisons to any number of critical faves, from paisley-period Prince ("Mushrooms & Roses") to a more pop-savvy Kate Bush ("Wondaland"). If there's a misstep — and I'm not sure there is one — it would be "Oh, Maker," an acoustic guitar-based track oddly reminiscent of John Hartford's folksy "Gentle on My Mind." Other tracks are permeated by classical, hip-hop and doo-wop elements, establishing the Kansas City-born art school graduate as a truly adventurous, accomplished new artist.
Lyrically and conceptually, this new release develops characters and themes from Monáe's debut EP, Metropolis, which introduced her alter ego Cindy Mayweather, an android with messianic tendencies. Like a hip-hop performance-art answer to Sun Ra's space-age daydreams, Monáe's science fiction themes bleed over into her persona and lead to public pronouncements that are nearly as intriguing as her music.
Indy: It seems you were pretty heavily influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'm wondering, when did you first see it and what did it mean to you?
JM: Sure, I first saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis 20 years ago, and I was introduced to it by Chuck Lightning, one of my writing partners. There was just something about the imagery that led me to want to create a whole album around the concept of the haves and the have-nots, and how we can get along. And I think the most important thing that I saw was the quote at the beginning, "The mediator between head and hands must be the heart."
Indy: Have you seen the restored version, by the way?
JM: Yes, I did. I was actually with Newsweek. They did an article with me and we went to go see it in New York a couple of weeks ago.
Indy: So you're saying you've known one of your co-writers for 20 years?
JM: Yeah, I've been here before. I'm a time traveler.
Indy: I know science fiction has a tendency to make political points that might be less palatable if they were expressed more polemically. Is that your strategy? And if so, what are the primary political points you're making, in addition to the haves-and-have-not aspect?
JM: Sure, I think it's just really about us getting along in this world. I mean, I do have an issue with individuals not feeling comfortable with being their unique selves. What I'm fighting against, with the music I create, is the great divide: You know, people who always try to divide you and categorize you and say, "Oh these people are not good enough to be with these people." Because being a black African-American woman and knowing my history, with how slavery happened and evolved and over time it morphed into something else, you know, whether it's discrimination against people that are gay or lesbian or straight or, you know, androids or cyborgs. So I think that it's just really about us doing away with all the labels and categories and just accepting each other for who we are as individuals.
Indy: That kind of dividing and categorizing happens musically as well. But there have been artists who, like yourself, expand the parameters, whether it's Prince with R&B or Kate Bush with pop. Plus, she's got that kind of operatic voice that you have, too. Would you number either of them among your influences?
JM: Yeah, I love Prince and Kate Bush. They're very special artists. Like how far they stretched ideas and concepts, and their voices and, you know, the things that they can do as artists. They put that first. And in that respect, I feel like I share that similarity. I focus on art, you know, and politics, and I'm deeply rooted in ideas.
Indy: My favorite song on the new album is "Cold War," which is really infectious musically and, combined with the lyrics, kind of gives me chills. Will you promise to make that the next single?
JM: [Laughs.] Well, I shot a video for it. Yeah, yeah, I can't wait 'til you see it. It was a one-take shot. We had a lot of conceptual stuff that we wanted to get in, but that one take was just so powerful. We were all crying, and it was a very special moment. That song is very dear to me, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Indy: I'm glad you made it. Now regarding your theatrical background — which is still evident in your music and especially in your videos — what was the tipping point, or points, that led to your decision to focus more on music?
JM: Well, it's still incorporated, of course. I'm a writer, I'm a director, I'm a producer, I wanted to make my own music. I went to school at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, but I don't want to be too influenced by any standardized teachings and sound like everybody else. I wanted my unique qualities to come out.
And I've always written. I was in the Young Playwrights' Roundtable at the Coterie Theatre, so I have a strong passion for creating my own musicals and characters, and that's what I wanted to focus on.
Indy: In a video interview, you talked about Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix both being held at a place called Palace of the Dogs [which is the setting for Monáe's "Tightrope" video]. Now I know Charlie Parker was institutionalized at Camarillo State Hospital, which he references in his song "Relaxin' at Camarillo." But were you surprised when publications like Paste picked up on your metaphorical comment and took it literally?
JM: Uh, no, because that's how it was described to me. I don't know how true it is, but that's exactly what I was told. I do think that artists have superpowers and people want to know, you know, what makes you tick. And so I definitely can believe that there have been places where artists have either voluntarily signed up — or they were actually forced to sign up — to be studied and analyzed.
Indy: But I mean, they literally believe there's a place called Palace of the Dogs.
JM: There is a place called Palace of the Dogs. It's very true.
Indy: Where is it?
JM: I cannot give you the coordinates as I would be in breach of contract, because I did study there, I lived there. What you'll see with the videos —we're going to shoot a visual for every single song — and the narrative will take place at the Palace of the Dogs. So you'll have to wait until the videos are released to actually know more about the Palace of the Dogs. But it is a physical place.
Indy: A lot of artists who do concept albums shy away from actually calling them concept albums, but it seems like you're not shying away from that at all. Why is that?
JM: Well, because, one, this story haunted me. A lot of the songs came to me in my dreams. And the reason why I believe that I connect with the androids is that they represent a new form of the "other."
I think we're gonna live in a world with androids, and they'll be able to map out our feelings and our thoughts, and you won't be able to differentiate. And so the concept of the ArchAndroid, which is very similar to the ArchAngel in the Bible and very similar to Neo in The Matrix, you know, the one, the mediator between the hands and the mind, the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor.
I come from a very working-class family, so I represent for the have-nots. Not that one plays the victim, but for people who are feeling depressed or oppressed, this music is for them, for people like my family. You know, my mother was a janitor, my father drove trash trucks, and I want to make sure that they have music that empowers them and motivates them and inspires them. So that's pretty much the concept that ties it all in. Of course there are different parallels and things that you can read into it, if you like.
Indy: How long has your vocal range been this wide?
JM: I don't know. I actually don't even understand, when I listen back to the album, it doesn't even sound like me. It is my voice. I really let the spirit move me. It was a very organic recording.
Indy: Will upcoming albums include any of the same characters or themes?
JM: That's something that I can't really disclose right now. But I'll keep you posted.