On this week’s Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano picks some of his favorite Janelle Monae songs. This mixtape is available on Spotify here.
Hello everybody, and welcome to Monday Mixtape. If you're anything like me, you dropped whatever you were doing when you heard that Janelle Monae released two new tracks. While we’ll get to those tracks later, I want to take a look back at Monae’s last two albums. Before her acting career kicked into high gear with roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monae released two of the most critically acclaimed R&B albums of the 2010s. Both encompassed an afrofuturist suite about an android who breaks from captivity. They also mixed R&B with various other genres. “Tightrope,” the big single off of her label debut The Archandoid, mixes R&B, hip-hop and big band. The record scratches, coupled with the brass section, create a more modern take on retro music. Monae shows off her consistently great voice in this anthem about dealing with haters that want to throw you off balance. Thematically, it ties to the pressures of being the trailblazer that her android character has become. Big Boi, one of her earliest supporters, drops a quick, but punchy verse that reinforces the themes of trying to keep afloat.
Monae swung for the fences on The Archandroid and pulled sounds from various genres that usually are not found in R&B records. “Oh, Maker,” for example, is influenced by traditional folk music. The first line of the song even comes from an old Simon and Garfunkel song. Monae laments her lover’s absence. She asks her maker, whether it be God or her character’s inventor, if they knew that love could become so powerful and cause so much pain. The uses of nature and color imagery to establish the sense of despair really works. It coalesces into a big chorus where Monae does some of her best R&B vocalizing on the album. While she is suffering, she admits that it was amazing that she ever had that love. It’s one of the most emotional tracks on The Archandroid and it’s a highlight of its impeccable first half.
[“Neon Valley Street”]
Now, Archandroid is one of my favorite albums of the decade, so picking just three songs off of it hurt. But I wanted to shine a light on the more abstract second half, or suite, as Monae calls them, of the album for my third pick. “Neon Valley Street,” the suite’s first song, mixes classical instrumentation, soulful piano and a hip-hop style drum machine in the beginning. The classier elements give way to the beat as Monae starts a rapped breakdown that focuses on the dystopic world her character inhabits. The song also includes a guitar solo and mellotron playing that reminds me of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Monae’s character is caught between the fantasy of time spent with her lover while dealing with the reality of the oppression her people face. She hopes that her song will reach that lover, but she also remembers the struggle that she faced. The Archandroid juxtaposes romance with the dire circumstances of her imagined world and “Neon Valley Street” exemplifies that theme.
Monae’s next album The Electric Lady was a throwback to the R&B, funk, soul and jazz that influenced her. And “Primetime” is her version of a classic slow jam. A relatively sparse track with a slow and atmospheric drum beat, “Primetime” captures the anticipation of romance. It erupts on the chorus when the smooth guitar kicks in and the organ comes to add more texture to the track. Miguel comes in on the next verse to play Monae’s lover. They have a steamy chemistry that reminds me of older soul duets.
[“Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”]
Not all of Monae’s songs are about revolutionary androids that find love. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” pays tribute to the actress of the same name. Dandridge, the first black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, is considered the ultimate level of class and beauty in the song. Her presence is intoxicating. Appropriately for a song named after an actress famous during the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” takes influence from the vocal jazz popular at the time. Esperanza Spalding, the jazz singer infamous for beating Justin Bieber and Drake for Best New Artist at the Grammys, sings a refined verse that fits the more traditional tone of the track.
[“Make Me Feel”]
Now for the reason why this mixtape exists. The first of the two new tracks that Monae released, “Make Me Feel,” finds Monae refining the funk sounds she has always used and adding a more electronic edge to them. The clear point of reference for this track is the dearly departed Prince, particularly his classic song “Kiss.” Both tracks have minimalistic beats, feature sticky guitar breaks in the chorus and are both filled with raw sensuality. Prince had collaborated with Monae on The Electric Lady, giving her the blessing of one of funk’s true geniuses and setting her up as a potential successor to his legacy. “Make Me Feel” is a great continuation of the Purple One’s sound. Monae takes that influence and adapts it to fit her more modern aesthetic. While it’s a song that covers the familiar territory of love, the line “emotional, sexual bender” suggests more fluidity in sexual preference than usual.
Let’s end this mixtape with the other track that Monae just released. “Django Jane” stands apart from the rest of Monae’s songs for being a pure hip-hop track, particularly one influenced by trap production. Monae raps for the entire track and proves that on top of a great voice, she also has a solid flow. The downbeat hi-hats and heavy bass of trap are used for forceful effect on a track that celebrates Monae’s success. She brags about her acclaim in both the music and film worlds and positions herself as a queen dominating all challengers. Monae has never been more explicit in her support for intersectional feminism. She attacks bandwagon jumpers who used to complain about her wearing suits and she promises to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards for her fellow Black people. The title of the song comes from her reappropriating both the Western hero Django and James Bond to fit her image. The instrumental also includes violins and violas to remind us that Monae hasn’t abandoned her classy image.
[Reprise “Django Jane”]
And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. I don’t know about yo,u but I can’t wait for Janelle Monae’s new album Dirty Computer to come out. This will be the last episode of the quarter, so see you in spring. Until next time, this has been Marco Cartolano for NBN Audio.