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Album review: Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

It’s already been an incredibly rich and fertile year for music, with established acts delivering fine additions to their back catalogues, while newcomers crawl out of the woodwork to surprise us on a regular basis. The 2010 version of my personal Top Ten list of albums is already full, a little over halfway through the year. There will no doubt be some intense jockeying for a position in the list as the year wears on, but one album is already a dead cert to stay.

Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is that rarest of beasts these days: a pop album that’s genuinely unafraid to push boundaries and take risks. The album’s influences are myriad and worn on its sleeve – Prince, Motown, Moroder/Summer disco, and a host of fearsomely theatrical divas from Bassey to Beyonce – but the near-omni-talented Monae mixes them into a concoction that’s all her own.

The concept-album weirdness of The ArchAndroid doesn’t detract one bit from its ridiculous catchiness, even as it segues from the infectious bangers “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to the downbeat-yet-beautiful “Oh, Maker”. Monae contains multitudes, and is as much at home with hip-shaking dancefloor jams as she is with jazzy vocal improvisation or impeccably arranged ballads. In that way, it’s almost a quintessential American record: building from the varied roots of its musical traditions a work that celebrates the past even as it looks to the future.

In an era where Lady Gaga-ish empty-calorie posturing is held up as the best pop music can aspire to, Monae combines a well-crafted image with genuine talent and an independent-minded spirit that takes her to wonderfully imaginative new places. This joy in invention is something that’s been missing from mainstream music for a long time. The ArchAndroid heralds its return.



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