A large amount of the critical discourse surrounding Janelle Monáe has focused on the question of why she hasn’t been more successful. I mean, sure, she’s got a major label record deal, is one of only a handful of black women to run her own record label, is one of the most critically acclaimed artists working, and is making a good living while making art according to her own vision and nobody else’s, but her best-performing album only hit #5 in the charts, so obviously she’s doing something wrong. And looking at her work and her career, I think I know what her problem is: she’s never had a white male science fiction fan whose only credentials for writing about music are having co-authored a book about They Might Be Giants write a detailed guide to her work.
An appalling oversight, to be sure, but one I’m only too happy to help correct.
The bulk of Monáe’s work consists of the five (and counting) part Metropolis Saga, released over two albums and an EP, and currently projected to run for seven parts, although it was previously slated as four parts. The suite focuses on the stories of Monáe’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android.
Suite 0: The Audition
Monáe’s 2003 self-released album The Audition is not actually a part of the Metropolis Saga, but contains two songs that introduce the themes and concepts she would later explore in the Metropolis Saga: “Metropolis” and “Cindi.”
The first of these is interesting in that it serves as a concise and bespoke sketch of the Metropolis setting, describing a run down and oppressive city (“Population ten zillion and six”) from the perspective of a “cyber girl” living “on the wired side of town.” Most of the song is a liltingly wistful number about the unnamed narrator’s dreams of freedom, with a spoken word bridge about the prejudices faced by “wired folk” on the grounds that “we have no feelings no memories or minds.” Several major concepts that will be expanded on in the Metropolis Saga proper are introduced here, most notably the repressive Droid Control and the character of Anthony Greendown.
The second is a two minute ballad that has no overt sci-fi trappings, instead being about the gulf between one’s dreams and one’s ordinary self, singing about “that girl in the mirror / with hair like a rock star / she wants to dance but she has cold feet/ her confidence is low / so much talent but who’ll know / when she’s afraid to follow her dreams.” But the lyrics make reference to trying “to be Cindi, in hopes that they’d notice,” a title drop that alludes to the robotic alter-ego she would eventually flesh out in detail. Crucial – indeed, as will eventually become clear, the entire point of the exercise – is the aspirational quality, one that’s implicit in the demo album’s title, The Audition. This is, in many ways, the eternal plot of the Metropolis Saga: Janelle Monáe’s continuing attempt to become Cindi Mayweather, a process that is indistinguishable from her continuing attempt to define what that means.
Suite I: The Chase
Monáe finally made her breakthrough with a 2007 EP entitled Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). These days it’s sold as either a seven track version (the Special Edition) featuring the songs “Mr. President” and “Smile,” or as an eleven track version (the Fantastic Edition) featuring some remixes, but the actual Suite I consists only of the first five tracks.
Of the five existent suites, the first is by some margin the most straightforwardly narrative, although by the end of the fifth track, “Sincerely, Jane,” the notion of what a narrative is within the context of the Metropolis Saga becomes complex, to say the least.
It starts simply enough, however, with “March of the Wolfmasters,” a spoken word piece in the form of an announcement that “Android No. 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown,” which means that bounty hunters are now free to hunt her (although the daily rules specify “no phasers, only chainsaws and electro-daggers”). This is followed by “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, which picks up straightforwardly from the perspective of Cindi as she goes on the run. (A highlight here: the way in which the lyrical description of the sirens melds into scat singing.)
But it is the third track, “Many Moons,” that serves as the suite’s key song – a literal centerpiece that was the Grammy-nominated single and the track to get a music video. The video poses an interesting challenge for anyone trying to construct a linear narrative, in that it features Cindi Mayweather as a singing and dancing entertainer at the annual Metropolis Android Auction, a setting that cannot be reconciled with the ostensible plots of “March of the Wolfmasters” and “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”
\Lyrically, the song starts by continuing the theme of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, describing an oppressive and degrading society (“all we ever wanted to say / was chased, erased, and then thrown away”). But after two verses the song pivots into a litany of short phrases. What’s interesting about these phrases, though, is that they don’t all seem to be part of the same conceptual space. Some are clearly part of the world of Metropolis (“cybergirl / droid control /get away now they trying to steal your soul”) while others seem to be part of the real world (“breast cancer / common cold / HIV / lost hope / overweight / self esteem / misfit / broken dream”).
Following the recitation, the drums trail off from the song and another musical section begins, a slow and mournful lullaby that begins “and when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home.” In the video, this takes place as Cindi is suspended in the air, lightning crackling from her, with the song and video ending with Cindi falling to the ground, seemingly dead. But the lyrics of the section and the imagery complicate this. In the video, Cindi is one of several androids portrayed by Monáe, all of whom lip sync the lyrics in unison. As Cindi dies, the bulk of the lyrics are voiced by one of her alter-egos, Lady Maestra, Master of the Show Droids, whose veiled footwomen surround the dying Cindi as though to bear her away. Meanwhile, the lyrics, about how “ when the world just treats you wrong / just come with me and I’ll take you home” and how “the old man dies and then a baby’s born” suggest a theme of rebirth.
Taken together with the varied litany that precedes it and the title (a phrase that does not appear in the lyrics itself, but does in the quote, attributed to Cindi, that closes the video, “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom”), there is a strong suggestion that the sort of freedom referenced throughout the song (“revolutionize your lives and find a way out,” as the chorus puts it) is one of escape into other worlds entirely. This is, in other words, where the “time travel” aspect of the Metropolis concept comes in. Monáe uses time travel not as a means of straightforwardly visiting other places and times, but rather to reconceptualize Cindi as a figure of eternal resistance. The many moons that Cindi imagines lighting her way to freedom, in other words, are simply other Cindis, some in worlds like Metropolis (hence the video, whose plot is seemingly incompatible with the album), some in other worlds entirely, most obviously that of the listener.
This makes the final two tracks of Suite I fairly straightforward. The first, “Cybertronic Purgatory,” depicts a captured Cindi (notably, a development not unlike that of the Cindi in the video’s death), whereas the second, the extremely solid “Sincerely, Jane,” clearly depicts the real world, as opposed to the stylized dystopia of Metropolis, with lyrics like “I’ve seen them shootin’ up funerals in they Sunday clothes / spending money on spinners but won’t pay college loans / and all you gangers and bangers rollin’ dice and taking lives, in a smokey dark,” but nevertheless still reflecting the basic desires expressed by Cindi elsewhere on the album, namely to find some sort of freedom or escape, imaginative or otherwise, from the dystopia. Or, more simply, in “Cybertronic Purgatory” Cindi is captured and destroyed, but this only causes her to reincarnate in a new setting entirely.
The sort of science fiction in play, in other words, is one in the New Wave tradition of endless redefinition – something akin to Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, perhaps. It is a mythology of transformation, as suggested in the Seventh Droid Commandment distributed at Monáe’s live shows, which lists various inspirations including Octavia Butler, David Bowie, and Andy Warhol. Or, for that matter, as suggested in the aggressively transhumanist Tenth Droid Commandment, which warns that “children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings.”
Suite II: The ArchAndroid Tracks 1-11
Monáe’s proper album debut, The ArchAndroid came in 2010, and offered the second and third suites of what was still projected to be a four-part sequence. Its nominal plot concerns Cindi’s realization that she is the messianic figure of the ArchAndroid, whose return to Metropolis (conceptualized here, apparently, as not just having androids but “elves and dwarves” and “clones and aliens”) will free the city from the Great Divide, “a secret society which has been using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages,” and that is suggested to be tied to the American government.
In one sense, Suites II and III can be divided with a sort of ruthless pragmatism – Suite II is where the singles are, whereas Suite III is more esoteric and experimental stuff. This isn’t quite fair, in that Suite II has a few distinct oddities, while Suite III has one of the album’s catchiest numbers, but it generally works. Suite II opens with an instrumental piece in the style of a film score, giving proceedings an epic and cinematic heft, before segueing into the first proper song, “Dance or Die.”
The song opens in a tacit callback to “Many Moons” (one of two in Suite II, with track eight, “Neon Gumbo,” being the post-chant portion of “Many Moons” played backwards), with a recitation: “Cyborg, android, d-boy, decoy, water, wisdom, tightrope, vision, insight, stronghold, heartless, ice cold, mystery, mastery, solar, battery.” But the vocal is not Monáe’s; rather, it’s guest artist Saul Williams, the acclaimed rapper and slam poet. This has a couple of effects. First, it interpolates Williams’s aesthetic into Monáe’s, giving a sense of revolutionary swagger to proceedings. Second, and not unrelatedly, it creates a sense of distance from Monáe herself.
It’s telling, then, that “Dance or Die” is the furthest from any sort of confessional mode that the Metropolis Saga has been since the opening “March of the Wolfmasters.” The first verse contains no first person pronouns whatsoever, in contrast with all of “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, “Many Moons,” and “Sincerely, Jane,” all of which invoke the first person in their first lines. More to the point, however, the “I” of the song is pointedly distant from Cindi. The chorus, where first person pronouns make their first appearance, is clearly about Cindi, as opposed to by Cindi: “a long long way to find the one / we’ll keep on dancing til she comes / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever / and if you wanna wake the sun / just keep on marching to the drums / these dreams are forever / oh these dreams are forever.” (The phrase “wake the sun” is also notable, in that it tacitly invokes Sun Ra, tying the figure of the ArchAndroid into a much larger tradition of afrofuturism and utopianism.)
“Dance or Die” also develops the specifics of Monáe’s vision of resistance and revolution, with dancing not just serving as a means of waiting for the ArchAndroid, but as an explicit form of resistance and, more to the point, of survival in a fallen and degrading world. (“It’s still a war in all the streets and yes freaks will dance or die.”) This theme carries through the next three tracks, “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown,” each of which return to a straightforwardly confessional mode and depict a their narrators in positions of captivity and longing for some form of release.
These three tracks serve as the lead-in to Suite II’s centerpiece, the double-header of “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” which also served as the album’s two singles. Both are upbeat, anthemic numbers with choruses primarily in the second person, a fact emphasized by the video for “Cold War,” which is a straightforward close-up of Monáe lip syncing the song to camera. The two songs also have relatively similar themes, focusing on the act of resistance and rebellion as primarily an internal one. “Cold War,” for instance, proclaims that “if you want to be free / below the ground’s the only place to be” and that “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” in amidst the chorus’s repeated declaration that “this is a cold war / you better know what you’re fighting for.” Indeed, the basic image of the title is in this regard telling; when last the direct imagery of war appeared it was in “Dance or Die,” where the war was an overt one that seemed in turn to harken back to “Sincerely Jane” in its depiction of the often cruel realities of urban life. (“Ghettos keep a crying out to streets full of zombies / kids are killing kids and then the kids join the army.”) Here, however, the war has become a cold war, free of literal violence, where the primary stakes are the maintenance of your own identity.
“Tightrope,” meanwhile, is the album’s main single, a rolicking number about maintaining balance and perspective in life and not getting “too high” or “too low” as you “tip on the tightrope” in life. It’s also the only track to get a substantive video (as opposed to the zero-budget one for “Cold War”). Interestingly, the video is not set in Metropolis. Nor, however, is it straightforwardly set in the present day. It takes place in the Palace of the Dogs, which is described as an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” The Palace is expanded on in the text piece that opens liner notes to The ArchAndroid (a sort of afrofuturist piece of weird fiction that also contains the astonishing statement “I am convinced now that 1954 is not just a year – it is an army”), which explain that that Monáe herself is imprisoned in the asylum. In this telling of the Metropolis mythos, Monáe is originally from the year 2719, where she was kidnapped, had her genetic code stolen and used to create Cindi Mayweather, and was then sent back in time. (The piece also has the helpful observation that “most of the story does not bear logical sense,” a useful guide in trying to parse it.)
This refocusing on resistance as an internal mental practice carries over in the final stretch of Suite II, which, after the palate cleansing “Neon Gumbo,” consists of “Oh, Maker,” “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” and “Mushrooms & Roses.” Like the stretch from “Faster” to “Sir Greendown,” all three are in the confessional mode, foregrounding Monáe (or her character) in the lyrics. But where “Faster,” “Locked Inside,” and “Sir Greendown” presented Monáe struggling for escape, these three present characters who have taken the lessons of “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to heart and found internal lives offering some measure of freedom.
The first, “Oh, Maker,” is a Simon and Garfunkel riff, interpolating the guitar line of “Sounds of Silence” and nicking the first line of “Kathy’s Song” for a mournful ballad from Cindi to her vision of God, which, sensibly for an android, is instead the Maker. The second, “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” is a full-throated embrace of strangeness and madness (and indeed, one of the few Monáe numbers that one could mount a decent social justice critique of). And “Mushrooms & Roses” closes out proceedings with a languid and distortion-heavy paen to the freedom of the eponymous club, “where all the lonely droids and lovers have their wildest dreams.” The song is also notable for the first mention of Mary, a cryptically defined figure of attraction within the Metropolis Saga, described here as “crazy about me / she’s wild man, she’s wild / she gives the boys all of her kisses and electricity / the golden door of their emotions opens wide / here they fall into her love and never have to hide.”
Suite III: The ArchAndroid Tracks 12-18
Despite being seven tracks long to Suite II’s eleven, Suite III is only about seven minutes shorter, a fact that is somewhat revealing about its content, which includes the two longest songs on the album, the six minute “Say You’ll Go” and the nearly nine minute “Babopbye Ya.” It is the half of the album that is less concerned with pop hooks, and more inclined towards the experimental. Thematically, it is thoroughly disjointed, and indeed, can fairly be criticized for losing focus compared to the Suite II, which, on its own, would form a ruthlessly tight pop EP.
To some extent, this disjoint is the point; much of this suite trades on the considerable stylistic differences among tracks, jumping from a crooned R&B love song to what’s basically an Of Montreal song (the only song on the album for which Monáe does not have a writing credit) to the jaunty synths of “Wondaland” to haunting folk to a ballad to the multi-part epic of “Babopbye Ya.” Certainly at no point has Monáe’s music sounded unduly repetitive, and there are individual transitions in Suite II just as radical (most obviously “Sir Greendown” to “Cold War” and “Oh, Maker” to “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”), but the sheer breadth of styles here is striking.
The standout track of Suite III, and indeed one of the high points of The ArchAndroid in general is “Wondaland,” a ruthlessly catchy piece of synth-funk that combines the psychedelia of lines like “Dance in the trees / paint mysteries / the magnificent droid plays there / your magic mind / makes love to mine” and “the grass grows inside / the music floats you gently on your toes / touch the nose, he’ll change our clothes to tuxedos” and the wonderfully silly chorus of “Take me back to Wondaland / I gotta get back to Wondaland / Take me back to Wondaland / She thinks she left her underpants.” It’s a masterpiece, and would have made a fine third single.
Suite III is also notable for containing the last mentions of Anthony Greendown in the Metropolis Saga to date, both in the overture, which interpolates bits of “Sir Greendown,” and at the end of “57821,” where he comes up twice, and, more broadly, where the song is clearly about him, beginning with a description of how “Early each morning he searched for her / til his feet become bloody and tired.” It’s fitting that this should happen immediately after the introduction of Mary, marking a clear transition in the focus of the Metropolis Saga.
And although Greendown is only explicitly mentioned in two songs, his presence hangs over much of Suite III, which has a recurring theme of distance and departure. “Neon Valley Street,” for instance, repeats the line “may this song reach your heart” throughout, alongside many other lines about communicating over distance. “Say You’ll Go” is downright literal about this theme. And “Babopbye Ya” (and thus Suite III and The ArchAndroid) ends with the line “my freedom calls and I must go.” The overall sense, in other words, is of moving on, suggesting that Cindi’s ascension to the role of ArchAndroid must also be understood as a turn away from the life depicted back in Suite I and towards an altogether broader perspective.
Suite IV: The Electric Lady Tracks 1-10
Monáe’s second album, The Electric Lady, is a structurally more complex beast, divided not just into its two suites, but into four sections split up by a trio of interludes in the form of a bantering radio DJ on WDRD fielding calls from eccentric listeners. Notably, these divisions do not coincide with the suites – they come on tracks 5, 8, and 14.
The Electric Lady is also somewhat complex in terms of how it fits with the rest of the Metropolis Saga. It marks the point where Monáe decided to extend the series from its original four parts to seven, and Monáe has suggested that it is in fact a prequel to The Chase, as she wasn’t sure how she wanted to end the cycle yet. This makes some narrative sense, offering a plot-related reason for the absence of Anthony Greendown from this album (though he does get a mention in the liner notes), but given that Mary makes multiple appearances in the lyrics is not quite as straightforward as it might appear, not least because the album marks a decisive move forward in Monáe’s songwriting and production such that it is conceptually difficult to treat it as an earlier, less mature version of her central character.
The Electric Lady does, however, share The ArchAndroid’s basic structure of a first suite composed of the hits and a second suite of less overtly commercial material. In fact, Suite IV is basically a wall-to-wall run of potential hits – of its seven proper songs, four were singles, and two more easily could have been. It’s a swaggering, confident run of songs that can easily be read as embodying Cindi’s revolutionary potential. This is made clear from the opening overture of the Suite, described in the liner notes as “inspired by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington,” and opening with a majestic crescendo to the triumphant line, “she has arrived!”
The effect continues ruthlessly in the next track, which opens as a guitar line that sounds like it comes from a lost Prince song as Monáe spits out her initial burst of braggadoccio: “I am sharper than a razor / eyes made of lasers / bolder than the truth.” And then, ninety seconds in, the song pulls off the ultimate moment of bravado as it goes from being a Prince homage to actually having Prince drop in for a verse. (A moment that also explains why the guitar line sounded like such a dead-on Prince homage.)
Monáe follows this with the album’s first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a manifesto of defiance that opens, “I can’t believe all of the things they say about me / walk in the room they throwing shade left to right,” but that eventually focuses on mundane and everyday judgments, as Monáe asks things like “is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror / and am I weird to dance alone late at night?” and “is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” (The song also includes the Metropolis Saga’s second reference to Mary: “am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”) Eventually it concludes that “even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am” and segues into a bridge from Erykah Badu that culminates in the observation that “the booty don’t lie.”
The accompanying video posits Monáe and the rest of the Wondaland Arts Society as famous rebels from history who have been captured in suspended animation by the oppressive future regime of Metropolis, but who are broken out by a bunch of rebels armed only with a record containing the single (described in the voiceover as “a musical weapons project,” and as a freedom movement disguised as a song), firmly making the connection between this sort of uncompromising self-esteem and revolutionary possibility, a link highlighted by the song’s finish, a rap breakdown from Monáe long on classic braggadocio (“my crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti / gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City”) and culminating in the question, “electric ladies, will you sleep, or will you preach?”
The song then makes a smash transition into the title track, the album’s fourth single, a lengthy description of Cindi praising “all the birds and the bees / dancing with the freaks in the trees” and describing how “once you see her face, her eyes you’ll remember / and she’ll have you fallin’ harder than a Sunday in September.” It’s worth noting that this marks a significant transition in the depiction of Cindi, however – it’s the first time in the Metropolis Saga that she’s been depicted as a sexual figure. This is a carefully curated sexuality, compared to “a modern day Joan of a Arc or Mia Farrow / classy, sassy, put you in a razzle-dazzy,” but it’s nevertheless made a defining aspect of her character for the first time.
Also interesting is the video, which sees Monáe cast as a member of the Electric Phi Betas, a present-day sorority (which her mother mishears as “Electrified Ladies,” eliciting an absolutely charming eyeroll from Monáe), whose party the video spends most of its time depicting, a further elucidation of the idea that CIndi Mayweather’s revolution extends out from the imagined future of Metropolis to countless places and times.
This flurry of three bombastic songs is followed by the first of the interludes, which, is used to cheekily work through debates within the black community about appropriate expressions of resistance and anger, contrasting two callers. The first is a woman who boasts about how “Droid Control can kiss the rust of the left and right cheek of my black metal ass” and how she’s going out tonight to “break some rules in honor of Cindi.” This caller meets with approval, with DJ Crash Crash asking her what rules, and responding to her suggestive answer that “we’re going to break all of them. We’re going to start at the top, and we gonna work our way down” by saying “I wanna work my way down with you.” The second, on the other hand, is “Ninja Bat Leeroy,” who angrily proclaims that “I’m tired of all these folks messing with us droids, kicking us all up in the head and wonder why we don’t think straight,” and proclaiming that they’re gooing to go out and “hit somebody in the head,” leading DJ Crash Crash to cut him off and proclaim that this is “rusty-dusty nano-thinking nonsense” and proclaiming that “we’re tired of fires, quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing, and loving. Don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass.”
The interlude sets up a transition to a pair of songs with markedly different tones. The first, “PrimeTime,” is a sultry duet between Monáe and guest star Miguel, in which they proclaim that “it’s primetime for our love.” This served as the album’s third single, with a video that returns to Metropolis itself for the first time since the “Many Moons” video, taking place at the Electric Sheep Nightclub, a bar featuring seductively dancing androids. The video fits neatly with Monáe’s declaration of the album as a prequel (as do the interludes, which fit with The Chase’s description of Cindi as “the leading voice of a rebellious new form of pop music known as cybersoul”), depicting Cindi as a waitress at the nightclub flirting with a patron, Joey Vice, played by Miguel, and finally storming out of the club after she’s harassed by a patron, culminating in a rooftop meeting with Joey Vice, who takes her to an underground club and subsequently to his apartment, where there are drinks, Chinese food, and seductive looks. The second, “We Were Rock n’ Roll,” is an enthusiastic reminiscence of an old love affair, with a rolicking chorus that “we were unbreakable / we were like Rock ‘n Roll / we were like a king and queen / I want you to know.” (Note the sly effect of the final line; it contextualizes all the bravado of the first three into an attempt to communicate that bravado to the other part of the song’s “we,” a paradox embodied by the use of the past tense for the adjective “unbreakable.” Pop-confessionalism at its finest.)
These are followed by a second interlude, seeing DJ Crash Crash at an android version of the classic black barbershop promoting that night’s End of the World Cyber Freak Festival and then introducing the next song, explicitly positioned as one of Cindi Mayweather’s songs, the album’s second single, “Dance Apocalyptic,” which largely does what it says on the tin, which is to say, provides a ludicrously catchy number about dancing in the face of armageddon. The video proclaims it the “Dawn of the Dance Apocalypse,” and features a melange of imagery with Monáe vamping decadently in a TV studio (the setting would appear to be roughly contemporary, although the announcer, portrayed by Jidenna, one of Monáe’s emerging proteges, featured prominently on her 2015 Eephus EP), introduces her as the Electric Lady, before eventually cutting to breaking news of a variety of apocalypses (fires in New York, locusts in Detroit, an earthquake in Miami, and, of course, zombies in Atlanta, who attack Monáe, portraying the newscaster, as the image blurs to static and a variety of strange and alien creatures) before cutting back to Monáe’s earlier performance, which ends with her and her band smashing their instruments and riding off with a suddenly appearing motorcycle gang called the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Like you do.
Its juxtaposition of idiosyncrasy and emphasis, however, is worth remarking on. It is both the second single off the album (and, like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” a pre-release single) and diegetically declared to be Cindi Mayweather’s single. And yet it is an aggressively straightforward song. The apocalypse is seemingly non-metaphoric; certainly it’s not in the video. And yet it is also undefined; there are apparently some zombies, but Monáe has used the image metaphorically before, and so ironically, the one major apocalyptic signifier is incapable of defining the apocalypse. Unlike the sonically adjacent “Tightrope” from the previous album, it is not a moralistic song; its sole injunction is to dance. It fits within the larger ethos of self-actualization as revolutionary liberation preached elsewhere on the album and in the Metropolis Saga at large, but only endorses them incidentally. It serves, in other words almost as the archetype of Suite IV; it is a pop song, defined almost purely by its ability to stand out from everything around it.
The suite ends with the only one of its songs that wouldn’t really have worked as a single, “Look Into My Eyes,” a brief number inviting the listener to be hypnotized by the singer and made into “a perfect work of art,” a return to the seductive imagery of the title track, but now turned into something altogether more chilling and unsettling. And yet the song’s basic promise remains optimistic: “we’ll both watch the sun kiss the sea,” Monáe sings at one point, and ends the song with a plea, “may our love be so brave and so true.” The iconography of a dark turn, in other words, without the actual turn.
Suite V: The Electric Lady Tracks 11-19
As with The ArchAndroid, the back half of the album is used for comparatively less commercial songs. In this case, that largely involves slowing things down with what’s mostly a series of ballads and love songs in a self-consciously classic R&B style. Its opening is a silky instrumental interpolation of “Look Into My Eyes” that echoes the cinematic feel of Suite IV’s overture that, around the one minute mark, turns into an upbeat jazz take on “Dance Apocalyptic.”
The suite is divided into a pair of songs – “It’s Code” and “Ghetto Woman” – and a quintet – “Victory,” “Can’t Live WIthout Your Love,” “Sally Ride,” “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” and “What an Experience” – by its lone interlude, “Our Favorite Fugitive. The first is an odd song, and sets a correspodningly odd tone for the Suite. Its title does not actually appear within the lyrics, but a near-match for it does in the chorus, which begins “Oh baby it’s cold / I want you to hold me.” The relative banality of this line matches the song’s lyrics, an unflashy piece of confessionalism about a woman grappling with the realization that her self-conscious distance from a would-be lover has pushed them into the arms of another woman, elevated only by some choice turns of phrase: “love’ll be your curse or a restless friend,” for instance, or the particular detail of the lament “I’ve been hurt / I need a glass of Merlot Blanc.” (An essentially non-existent drink; the grape exists, but is scarcely planted and used almost exclusively in blends.)
The pun of the title, however, forces a complex reading on a song that is self-consciously resistant to sustaining it. It demands that the listener read a seemingly self-explanatory song lacking in any hidden meaning as “code.” But this paradox, upon inspection, proves to be even larger. Much of the Metropolis Saga, after all, has demanded that we read things as code, taking the oppression of androids in Monáe’s imagined future as a metaphor for present-day oppressions. Indeed, The Chase can be read as a straightforward act of encoding – a tutorial in the proper usage of Monáe’s sci-fi metaphor. But “It’s Code” contains none of these signifiers. Indeed, with the exception of its interlude, about which more in a moment, there are no sci-fi signifiers anywhere in Suite V. Instead we are asked to read the ordinary and everyday as a series of metaphors for an imagined future.
The other song of the first pair is “Ghetto Woman,” the album’s most aggressively non-sci-fi piece. The title is bluntly material, with a real-world connection unseen since “Sincerely, Jane” back on The Chase. It is a hymn to a particular archetype of black femininity, one firmly rooted in urban poverty. But the word “hymn” in many ways sells it short – Monáe is aggressively trying to center this decidedly unflashy vision of black womanhood as a near-platonic ideal, proclaiming her to be “the seventh wonder reigning over us at night” and proclaiming her to be “built to last through any weather.” Revealingly, the song culminates in a soaring rap sequence that’s overtly autobiographical for Monáe, describing her relationship with her own mother and including the lyric “before the tuxedos and black and white every day / used to watch my momma get down on her knees and pray / she’s the reason that I’m even writing this song,” a musical rendition of a frequent refrain in interviews regarding Monáe’s preference for the tuxedo as a desire for a form of uniform like her mother’s janitor uniform, to root her musical work in her working class upbringing.
These two songs are followed by “Our Favorite Fugitive,” the Suite’s one grounding in the Metropolis mythos. As with “Good Morning Midnight” in Suite IV, it features DJ Crash Crash dealing with various callers. Unlike “Good Morning Midnight,” however, where the callers exist to work through a debate within black culture, “Our Favorite Fugitive” deals with a trio viewpoints that are distinctly positioned as outside the oppressed android culture. Two of these viewpoints are straightforward parodies – the first caller, Peggy Lakeshore, who simply calls to declare that she’s “disappointed” and “disgusted” by “people like that” (i.e. Cindi Mayweather), having no objection beyond the fact that “she’s not even a person; she’s a droid.” (DJ Crash Crash accepts the declaration as fact and hangs up on her politely.) The third, meanwhile, simply shouts “robot love is queer” with no further elucidation, to which DJ Crash Crash responds by noting “what I wanna know is how you would know it’s queer… if you haven’t tried it.”
But between these is a caller named Josh. Josh is an interesting figure – he goes out of his way to greet DJ Crash Crash with his catchphrase, “power up,” but his voice tangibly lacks confidence. He mentions that he’s a college student, and notes, “I’ve been following you and cyber-soul and the whole droid underground for a while now,” both of which serve to establish a sense of distance from the community represented by the androids. And his speech is almost obnoxiously hesitant, awkwardly qualifying itself as he asks “You know, if you guys, in android community truly believe that Cindi Mayweather is not just like the Electric Lady Number One and all, but like also the ArchAndroid? Because of course in the book of…” But more interesting is DJ Crash Crash’s response which is to hurriedly cut him off with a “no, no, not on my show” and hang up on him, an apparent rejection of the messianic vision of the previous album. That this should take place in Suite V’s sole engagement with the larger Metropolis mythology is striking.
The final five songs of suite and album continue in the vein of overtly classic R&B numbers set up by the opening two. The first two, “Victory” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love” are straightforward. “Victory” is didactic: “to be victorious you must find glory in the little things.” “Can’t Live Without Your Love” is a sultry confessional, flirtatiously trying to stave off a breakup: “baby don’t you know I can’t live without your love.”
The final three, however, are each fascinating in their own ways. The first, “Sally Ride,” marks a return to the symbolic, and tacitly interpolates the sci-fi imagery of the rest of the Metropolis Saga by invoking Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who died in 2012 during The Electric Lady’s production and posthumously came out as having been in a same-sex relationship. Fittingly, the song also marks the return of Mary, with its repeated refrain, “wake up Mary, have you heard the news / you got to wake up Mary, you got the right to choose.”
The second, “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” also tacitly interpolates the earlier sci-fi imagery, returning to the image of hypnosis from “Look Into My Eyes,” but this time positioning the hypnotic eyes in a historical tradition of black female sexuality via the reference to Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress to get a nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars.
And then there is “What An Experience,” the album’s closer, and the final part of the Metropolis Saga to date. The song trades on a central irony – its chorus is invested in the presence, asking over and over again “can you feel it” and proclaiming “I can really feel it.” But the title, also repeated in the chorus, is fundamentally reflective and backward looking, a tone highlighted by the fact that it is the album-closer, and thus an ending. This dualism is highlighted in one of the verses, which notes that “the world’s just made to fade / and all the parties someday blow away / but the memories come home / it’s funny how they come back with a song.”
And yet the main tone of the song is one of immediacy, a sense highlighted by the fact that it contains the most sexually explicit moment of the Metropolis Saga when, in amidst tame pleasantries like “you know when you touch my heart / I can really, really feel it” the line “baby when I touch your cock / can you really, really feel it” appears. The experience is also repeatedly compared to wine, the lover described as “buzzing my mind.” It is, in other words, the sense of hypnotic intoxication of “Look Into My Eyes” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” (and one of the song’s final lines is indeed “look into my eyes”), a sense of overwhelming and immediate experience.
Which is, of course, what it’s always been about, even from before the start. Cindi Mayweather has always been about becoming – a transformation from dystopia to utopia that is always happening and thus never fully realized. As Monáe says to her alterego in the album’s liner notes, “see you where I always see you, in the future.”
Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.
June 30, 2015 @ 9:00 am
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June 30, 2015 @ 4:19 pm
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June 30, 2015 @ 5:22 pm
I had The ArchAndroid album but never really paid that much attention to it beyond the surface pleasures. Your excellent article has inspired me to revisit it and the rest of JM's discography. Thanks!
June 30, 2015 @ 7:57 pm
Brilliant! I love Janelle and this in-depth analysis of yours! Thank you for sharing!!!
July 1, 2015 @ 12:41 am
I think the video for "Cold War" is more interesting than the more polished videos for her other singles. At first I thought she'd fluffed the lip-synching and was trying not to laugh just after the line "I was made to believe there's something wrong with me", but it actually looks like she couldn't get past it without tearing up. It's a great artistic decision to have run with that whole raw take for the video – really adds some extra emotional punch to the defiance in the lyrics.
July 9, 2016 @ 8:25 pm
The thing is, the whole video seems to be a deliberate reference to Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 you” which also features a steady, tight, head-on extreme close-up of the singer…and a part where she tears up. So if it’s a deliberate homage, that would make the tear an act…right?
March 13, 2018 @ 3:55 pm
After the song came out I remember reading that reason she was tearing up was because they she was frustrated with filming. They had done so many takes of the song and she kept messing up, so she started to tear up in this take. Rather than cut filming, they filmed the rest of the take and used it.
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July 1, 2015 @ 7:37 am
I really enjoyed this– I'm going to have to get ahold of her albums now.
The analysis was great, but the music spoke for itself. Wow.
July 3, 2015 @ 12:59 pm
I am not convinced that is an authentic "take" and not a deliberate performance.
July 5, 2015 @ 12:50 am
I didn't like to suggest it… But even if it is deliberate, as cynical as that might be, it'd still be a brilliant artistic choice.
August 15, 2015 @ 3:36 am
Didn't really matter to me, as I was really blown away by that video.
August 15, 2015 @ 3:39 am
Haven't listened to Janelle apart from via one of your previous essays (Electric Lady on the "Beauty of Their Weapons" essay), so thanks for this (just catching up with it now after a busy couple of months!)
“Many Moons" – amazing dancing by her on this video!
Cold War – wow, just wow.
Tightrope – bloody beautiful.
Q.U.E.E.N – On the typewriter near the end: "We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years."
Electric Lady – Adore: “all the birds and the bees / dancing with the freaks in the trees.”
Absolutely going to get her albums on the basis of this essay, great writing and thanks for introducing me to this music.
July 9, 2016 @ 8:28 pm
Given the references to “cybersouls” I interpreted it as the androids of Metropolis being literal reincarnations–perhaps the souls are literally captured and installed at the factory? This would make her references in the chanting portion of Many Moons to a poor, drug-addicted girl who apparently commits suicide and then seemingly is reborn as an android make a lot of sense…
May 19, 2017 @ 7:16 pm
I like the breadth and depth of the article! I just started listening to Monae and I enjoy the musical and theatrical feast!
February 19, 2018 @ 5:41 pm
A great essay! I really enjoyed it. Now I really hope that you expand it when Janelle releases her new album Dirty Computer!
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May 28, 2019 @ 6:44 pm
““Come Alive (War of the Roses),” is a full-throated embrace of strangeness and madness (and indeed, one of the few Monáe numbers that one could mount a decent social justice critique of)”
Could you expand more on what this critique would consist of? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.