Janelle Monáe
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Monday, December 17, 2018

Favorite Albums of 2018

10. Chris by Christine and the Queens

In many respects, it seems Héloïse Letissier still feels like an outcast today, just as she did years ago. And who could blame her? With her avant-garde vision and a complex persona to deliver it, it's hard to remember that she is, at her core, one of us – and one of them. Draping overstretched, hyper-metaphoric storyboards over iron-clad sonic framework, she stands on the front lines of pop music's master class without losing touch with humanity. Her sophomore record, Chris, isn't just the misbehaved younger sister to its predecessor, heat-warping steady beats and meaty synthesizers with some frustrated sexual energy; it is an imperfectly human display of tragedy and fantasy – and just about everything in between. (full review)

9. Bloom by Troye Sivan

Troye Sivan's Bloom is the first mainstream record that allows a young, openly gay man to flaunt his sexual prowess. It not only makes good use of fresh dance-pop, but also documents an important time in gay culture as we gain some basic rights but demand normalization in society. (It's his second album to do so, after Blue Neighborhood book-ended an era of scared gay kids recording themselves coming out to loved ones and posting the outcomes on YouTube as tokens of representation.) The record isn't long; Sivan punctuates all he needs to say after just over half an hour. But it makes the most of that time, capturing the emotional complexities of young love between two men like no popular musician has done before. In short: Wig flew to Asia. (full review)

8. Forever Neverland by 

There's plenty of escapism behind Forever Neverland, but rather than detachment from reality, it burrows inward. Navigating her late-20-something years, MØ clings to people and memories immediately close to her to drown out a world that is overwhelming turbulent. In doing so, she lights a match beneath her music and dances through her second record; it goes limp only when she delivers its two ballads, "Mercy" and "Trying to Be Good." She displays, and allows listeners to indulge in, a realistic escapism – one that allows us to entangle ourselves in vivid memories that cannot be tarnished, no matter how unforgiving adulthood becomes. (full review)

7. A Good Girl by Ralph

Pop hasn’t been this straight-up sugary sweet in a long while. After riding on the fringes Spotify viral pop, Ralph reinvigorated her pop vision with inflections of dance and disco for a sparkling debut album. A Good Girl flaunts colorful melodies and vintage-minded instrumentation. Almost all of them lasting roughly three minutes or less, the 10 tracks on A Good Girl are quick (but potent) hits of pure pop without complications, straight to the jugular. They take pop back to the basics, spared of flashy production and heavy lyrical baggage so they can entertain at face value. And with a record that is so effortlessly infectious and charismatic, Ralph proves to be a star in her own right – even if she swears she’s going to remain just the girl next door. (full review

6. Someone Out There by Rae Morris

Someone Out There proves current, fun, dance-conscious pop music doesn't have to be topical or trivial. Written and recorded just before a romantic relationship formalized between Morris and primary collaborative songwriter and producer Fryars, the album bleeds the excitement that comes with a blossoming relationship. Yet when Morris is giddy, she's still composed ("Atletico," "Dip My Toe," "Do It"). When she slows the tempo, she remains hopeful ("Dancing with Character," "Reborn," "Someone Out There"). And regardless of her tone on this record, she's absolutely mesmerizing. (full review)

5. The Future and The Past by Natalie Prass

Retrofitted from a scrapped concept that was finalized before Election Day 2016, The Future and the Past is a subtle protest record of sorts that demands we try to continue relatively normal daily lives amid the world’s chaos. To fulfill an album title that all but guarantees a timeless sound and progressive songwriting, Natalie Prass mixes an incredibly potent cocktail of jazz, vintage rhythm and blues, lounge pop, and funk. (Oh, and just a touch of disco, especially as "The Fire" really elbows into an infectious groove not unlike one found on La Roux's sophomore record.) Her voice, then, is the smooth constant across the impressive gallery of textures. (full review)

4. Still Run by Wet

Wet’s sophomore record, Still Run, is clear evidence of a band amid transition, after a fracture of the band’s line-up and a musical reinvention. Within its 10 tracks, Wet are very much caught up in, well, being Wet. Even still, it’s a thing of beauty. Kelly Zutrau is tangled in her own existence as a friend, a lover, and a musician, and what comes of those struggles is an album that is both gorgeous and directionless: Her delicate vocals ripple over the band’s richest sounds yet. Aside from Zutrau's gains in assertion, the record struggles to find a forward motion – and that's okay this time around. Memorializing what could have spelled disaster for the promising young band, it does as its centerfold track promises: Beauty radiates from the record, softening the band's grief track by track until it puts the turmoil to sleep with a final lullaby. (full review)

3. Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Though its ambition is perhaps longer lasting than its musicality, Dirty Computer is Janelle Monáe’s first true statement piece. She has always been an artist of eccentricity, but never one with tunes as infectious as “Make Me Feel” or “Pynk.” Building upon the recent legacy of records from powerful black women like the Knowles sisters, she embraces herself as both a black woman and a queer American with strength and striking wit across this record's tightly-written tracks, then she directs action upon her experiences: "You fucked the world up now; we'll fuck it all back down," she promises. And that, we will. (full review)

2. High As Hope by Florence + The Machine

In theory, High As Hope shouldn’t be a great Florence + The Machine record. It’s the antithesis to the band’s previous material: It’s subtle and short-winded, without brazen histrionics. But perhaps that’s where it finds its magic (and not of the useless variety, that’s for sure). In the absence of her lush instrumentation, Florence Welch is stripped of her top layers and her emotions are left exposed as she finally sews the wounds of her past shut. She has never sung about herself or presented her feelings in the way she does on this record – and never have her words been backlit with such bright shimmers of hope. (full review)

1. Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves’ third record was enjoyable during initial listens, but as it marinated in my car stereo throughout the year, the record revealed its true beauty. Balancing Southern charm and pop-inclined songwriting, Golden Hour is equally nostalgic and forward-thinking. Below the folds of the album’s acoustic pop (and sometimes, all-out pop) slipcover, country sensibility remains a familiar cushion for Musgraves. And it’s the record that allows her to sidestep out of the country underdog archetype and into the light as an artist who writes her own rules in a genre that hasn't been wholly itself since before she was born, even if her rules are far from polished ones. (full review)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Favorite Songs of 2018 (Part Four)

Happy holidays and m(ariah)erry C(arey)hristmas, everyone. It is not only time for us all to get holly, jolly, merry, and bright, but also time for us to compile all of the tracks that made this year a bit more enjoyable. For reference, one musical act is allowed to have only one track on the countdown. Below is the fourth and final set of songs in the countdown; click the links to see part onepart two, and part three.

10. "It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)" by The 1975

"It's Not Living (If It's Not With You)," the track that Matty Healy described to Billboard as "the big heroin one" from The 1975's third record, is just that: Packed with a glossy guitar, a children's choir, and an effortless melody, the love letter to the drug is an instant essential in the band's discography. It exudes a strange feeling of sentiment, optimism, and relief in hindsight, though, knowing Healy is clean from heroin as of the album's release.

9. "Make Me Feel" by Janelle Monáe

The sexiest song of 2018 came from the least likely competitor: The once sexually-devoid Janelle Monáe made a splash with her pansexuality... and released the explosive track to confess her existence as a sexual being. “Make Me Feel” capitalizes on Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter’s disjointed, staccato songwriting structures, perhaps better than any song ever has before. And of course, the Prince sample certainly didn’t hurt this song’s already strong case.

8. "September Fades" by Ralph

From the bubbling synths to the vocal swoops and soars, everything about "September Fades" is effortlessly smooth. Ralph's voice runs like fingers across velvet as she laments on falling out of love while her lover is none the wiser: "September fades, but you stay the same. Evergreen. When I'm cold, watch it snow. But you never leave," she sings. The production feels both vintage and current, hitting the right balance of today's synthpop and yesterday's disco. (Plus, if this track doesn't make you want to dance in a vintage suit and a pair of heels behind the closed curtain of a cheap motel, nothing will. What a serve.)

7. "Doesn't Matter" by Christine and the Queens

When singing in English, Christine and the Queens carries herself with a certain bluntness. “If I believe in God, and if God does exist, it doesn’t matter, does it?” she sings over gurgling bass surges and sharp drum kicks on “Doesn’t Matter.” Her instrumentation bends and warps under its own heat, feeling much more human and emotive than the sharp, polished beats of Chris' earlier work. It counters a strong melody without overpowering her double-tracked vocals, resulting in a career redefining moment.

6. "No Tears Left to Cry" by Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande’s first release since a suicide bombing at the Manchester stop on her Dangerous Woman Tour took the lives of over 20 people, "No Tears Left to Cry" is stained with grief but is fueled on optimism: Sleek, disorientating production dances below Grande's pleading – but not showy – vocal melody as she promises to put her grieving period to bed. It’s not only a new career high for Grande, but also the forward-thinking pure pop track that otherwise abysmal Top 40 needed and deserved this year. (And yes, this deserved to be her first number one. Thank u, next.)

5. "Mariners Apartment Complex" by Lana Del Rey

With every album, Lana Del Rey somehow transforms into something a bit more alluring than her last reincarnation. As the introductory track to her upcoming album, "Mariners Apartment Complex" takes her back to the acoustic pop-rock of Ultraviolence – and it marks her most carefree track since... forever. She and super-producer Jack Antonoff craft a beautiful acoustic soundtrack to match her peace. It exudes what a good time it is to be alive for Lana Del Rey – and if she's living her best life, then so are we.

4. "The End of Love" by Florence + The Machine

Whereas Florence + the Machine’s previous albums took the form of deep, quick gasps, their fourth studio record is a calming exhale. As it nears its end, the record encounters its most awestruck moment: "The End of Love," a nearly five-minute story that touches on her struggles with her grandmother's suicide. Never have Florence Welch's foghorn vocals been so exposed as they are here: "We were reaching in the dark that summer in New York. And it was so far to fall, but it didn't hurt at all. Let it wash away, wash away," she wails into an abyss, with only piano making footprints below her.

3. "Slow Burn" by Kacey Musgraves

On tracks like "Slow Burn," Kacey Musgraves proves she is among the best at bottling small town sentiment at the tap. Born in the desolate Golden, Texas, and raised in a nearby town, Musgraves pens this autobiographical ode to carelessness, to going nowhere fast in a town where piercing your nose outrages grandma. In a world of commercialized, prepackaged country made for midwestern radio consumption, "Slow Burn" is country done right – its appeal transcends genre by following its creator's lead, not trying to do anything but exist in the moment.

2. "Fallingwater" by Maggie Rogers

After a breakthrough track like the low-maintenance "Alaska," Maggie Rogers didn’t seem like the type to release an anthem... until she released one encapsulated in a somewhat nonchalant pop shell. "Fallingwater" is a captivating track that flows like a river over a rocky terrain – a smooth appearance in its overtones, with a grainy floor underneath. Its beautiful stonewashed production runs against a persistent drumbeat and Rogers' matured vocals, resulting an organic track that washes over listeners and pulls them into its current.

1. "Lately" by Wet

The most stunning track in Wet’s discography also happens to be the most captivating track of the year. "Lately" turns a defeated energy into a triumphant realization: "I’ve been bending over backwards just to make you feel like you’re wanted. But what have you done for me lately?" sings frontwoman Kelly Zutrau, refusing to let her own energy be expended only for somebody else's stability without anything in return. The track unfolds into a beautiful reclamation of her well-being as her fragile notes cycle between highs and lows with grace over an immersive soundtrack that is quintessential Wet.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Dirty Computer | Janelle Monáe

Without proper representation or respect in the current federal administration, minorities have taken to the arts in droves. An important outpouring of female, black, Latino and queer experiences have played out in music in the past few years. For better or worse, rap and hip-hop have taken to the mainstream without pop stars being the vehicles to deliver it to the airwaves via samples and guest verses – for better, perhaps, because rap historically has been the platform for reform, but for worse, as well, because the commercial side of the genre is void of the struggle that makes rap resonate. After all, it seems the biggest struggles Post Malone has had are washing his hair and refraining from facial tattooing.

Janelle Monáe, meanwhile, is a triple minority American with a lot to say. After spending the first several years of her career tied up in a proposed seven-part concept story line of dystopian futurism and humanistic robots, she embraces her place in America as a pansexual black woman – and she does so in the largest way possible. She sidesteps from her Metropolis conceptual spread with the declaration of a real-life broken code: She’s a Dirty Computer with faulty hard-wiring that allows her to recognize and experience emotion, sexuality, and inequality in the here and now.

Monáe’s narrative unfolds over a pop record with a funk soul. The minimalist, disjointed lead single "Make Me Feel" wears its Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter co-signatures on its sleeve, but it sets itself apart with its wobbly, Prince-inspired synth line and overtly sexual intentions. The Grimes-featuring "Pynk" and Zoë Kravitz-assisted "Screwed" are equally fun and sexually liberating moments – true triumphs for the woman who remained firm on having an attraction only toward androids until this album cycle. "Pynk" embraces femininity and queerness with its reference to the "inside of your... baby" and its anthemic, wailing chorus, while "Screwed" is a bit brattier as it infuses wise digs toward American politics and the sexual assailant that the country calls a president.

Talk of her sexual experiences, self acceptance, and womanhood is triumphant but never flaunting; moreover, it often acts on behalf of grander commentary. (Only when Pharrell Williams was cleared to drop the line, "Yellow like the pee," on "I Got That Juice" does Dirty Computer graze distastefulness – and even then, Monáe recovers with a stern, "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.") And though she is so often confidently defiant in all the right ways, she does allow fragility to prevail in the crevices of this record – especially when a romantic relationship is referenced, like on standout power ballad "So Afraid" and the less dynamic "Don't Judge Me." 

Dirty Computer acts not only as Monáe’s sexual awakening, but also as her rise to power. She ignites with pride in her identity on "Django Jane," a thunderous dedication to black girl magic, while "I Like That" and finale track "Americans" look in the rear-view mirror, back to national and personal history. "I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six. I was like, ‘Damn.’ But even back then, with the tears in my eyes, I knew I was the shit," she says on "I Like That." And "Americans" allows her to warp a nostalgic, wholly American sound into the ultimate satirical statement and call to action: "Sign your name on the dotted line," she sings as the final resonating line of the album.

In 2016, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles released two of the year's most prolific albums, both with the same thematic core: the black woman and the confrontation of her own existence in society. Beyoncé's Lemonade was filled with rage, provoked by both systemic racism and marital woes; Solange's A Seat at the Table, a bit more general in nature but still introspective. And in 2018, Janelle Monáe builds upon the Knowles sisters' progress with an equally important piece of work. She embraces herself as both a black woman and a queer American with strength and striking wit across this record's tightly-written, infectious tracks, then she directs action upon her experiences: "You fucked the world up now; we'll fuck it all back down," she promises. And that, we will.

Dirty Computer is available now under Atlantic Records.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Electric Lady | Janelle Monáe


Three years after her debut, Janelle Monáe has stormed back on the scene with her two-disc sophomore follow-up to The ArchAndroid. The Electric Lady acts as the fourth and fifth parts to her planned seven-suite Metropolis concept. 

Wikipedia says that this album "incorporates influences of hip hop, soul, funk, gospel, jazz and rock." I think this sums up The Electric Lady perfectly; it's got a wide variety of sounds. However, as most of my readers know, I don't usually touch on any of those genres, so this is a brand new reviewing experience for me! I surely hope that I've done the job justice, although this is a relatively short review.

For "Give Em What They Love," Monáe calls in the help of musical heavyweight Prince, in which the two slide through some harmonies while smoothing sliding the song's title in lyric form. And then in "Q.U.E.E.N." Monáe brings out a funky electronic sound with some older jazz elements added in. That sound eventually fades towards the end of the song to a primarily jazz sound as a guest vocalist does a rap outro.

The most radio-friendly track on the album is "Dance Apocalyptic," which uses a fast-paced jazz sound to create an infection track with carefree lyrics like "If the world says it's time to go / Tell me, will you freak out? / Smash, smash, bang, bang / Don't stop / Cha-lang-a-lang-a-lang!" Eventually the song spirals into a short hip-hop inspired outro with a strange alien voice (which I think is supposed to represent Monáe's alter-ego, "Android") rambling some nonsense: "What's the matter? / Your chicken tastes like pork? / You have triplets instead of twins? / Is your food taste plastic?"

"Ghetto Woman" is a smooth, chilled funk track with some eighties inspirations mixed in. The song maintains this sound for a while, until the breaks into a rapped verse about her mother who gave birth to her as a teen: "When I was just a baby my momma dropped out of school / It was only second semester the baby due / The doctor said 'December the first your due date.'" From what I've gathered, the song also combats racism and prejudice: "When you doubt if you’re a star, just know we still believe / Carry on, ghetto woman / Even when the news portrays you less than you could be / I wish they could just realize / All you ever needed was someone to free your mind."

If you're a fan of jazz or soul, this album is for you. Monáe put a tremendous amount of work into The Electric Lady and it definitely shows. This being said, it's really not in my taste. Some of the songs are on par with my normally pop, indie, and dance tastes, but a lot of the album hits with a funk-packed punch. Taking myself out of that mindset and giving the album an unbias review, I threw three stars to it. It seems like a decent piece of work in my eyes.
© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall