It's been three years now since Janelle Monae released her debut EP, and ears perked up left and right. Then she was picked up by P. Diddy's Bad Boy label, her EP was re-released the following year, and Monae was effectively hailed as the next big thing in soul music. Then she promptly disappeared, leaving anticipation to grow over when she would resurface, and whether or not she would be able to make do on the immense promise shown on The Chase. Finally, her debut full-length The ArchAndroid has arrived, and it doesn't just live up to every single expectation amassed over the last three years, this sprawling album absolutely dwarfs not just her previous work, but everything in the neo-soul genre as well.
The most astounding quality of ArchAndroid isn't the incredibly broad scope of ambition so much as the fact that she's able to do all of it. Well... most of it. Make the Bus, her collaboration with Of Montreal, does prove to be ill-conceived for the simple fact that the indie group is clearly out of their element and they simply don't mesh. Still, that's one failed experiment against seventeen wildly successful ones, some more than others feeling like complete and utter long shots (how she got 60s folk and modern R&B to blend so brilliantly on Oh, Maker or 57821 is a mystery and a half), but all yielding spectacular results. Mushrooms & Roses and Wondaland takes a strong psychedelia sound and turn it into Monae's own soulful hybrid. The mournful Say You'll Go culminates in a beautifully placed sampling of Claude Debussy's Claire de Lune. Come Alive (The War of the Roses) sounds more like the Stray Cats than they themselves ever did, and she even does it better to boot. Closer BaBopByeYa genre-hops like mad over the course of nearly nine minutes, from jazz to classic vocal pop to opera in Spanish (!), but with such smooth transitions that it all feels the same.
What's even more impressive is that the ArchAndroid, for all its experimentation, is pure pop in execution. Even the most challenging songs never alienate the listener, and still feel right at home nestled against the singles, the heavily funk-laced Cold War and Tightrope (with a very charismatic Big Boi). While Monae's ambition is daunting to say the least, she never reaches beyond her grasp, and the songs never feel overwrought or pompous. This is why, as much as it really should, The ArchAndroid doesn't once feel like a shambled mess of ideas.
While the music is stellar all across the board, Monae herself tops it all not just with how great her voice is, but how versatile it is as well. There's that soulful wail on the singles, but Monae can just as capably adopt an understated croon or passionate scream, and she goes from rapping to gentle harmonization with ridiculous ease. On the first suite (ArchAndroid is divided into two), all of these are used to outstanding effect, and the songs flow splendidly, from the lively Dance or Die and Faster through the serene and calming Sir Greendown to the raucous singles and concluding with the aforementioned Oh, Maker and Mushrooms & Roses. The second suite doesn't move quite as smoothly, largely because of a lesser pop influence and the disruptive Make the Bus, but sounds no less creative and is really just a slight dip in quality.
The ArchAndroid is fearlessly adventurous and creative, and shows an exciting new voice in music making a name for herself. It's been quite a while since something this ambitious has been so accessible and easy to enjoy, and Janelle Monae hasn't just nailed her intended sound, she may well have laid out the blueprint for the future of R&B.