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Janelle Monáe: The ArchAndroid, Kelis: Flesh Tone (2010) September 25, 2010

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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ArchAndroid and Fleshtone

Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid and Kelis: Flesh Tone

It’s been a good year for genre-defying afrofuturist R&B singers. Or for music listeners intrigued by that sort of thing, anyway; I have no idea how well these albums are selling. At any rate, Janelle Monáe’s first full solo album and Kelis’s latest are two very different albums that both come from singers associated with R&B while really not having much to do with that at all. And they’ve both got science fictional lyrics, too.

I’m of the opinion that The ArchAndroid is the better of the two albums, because while Flesh Tone successfully reinvents Kelis as an electro/house dancefloor queen, The ArchAndroid is an epic work that takes on a dozen or more musical styles and genres and wins. If you heard it playing somewhere and weren’t listening closely you could easily think you were listening to someone flicking between different radio stations. There’s some retro soul/hiphop crossover moments, some alternative rock, a track going for an almost punk feel, an orchestral instrumental intro, psychedelia, a song that sounds like some kind of folky easy listening tune from 1970 before going triphop, another that sounds almost like something 1950s arranger Gordon Jenkins (who did some strings-heavy torch song albums for Sinatra) might have worked up, another that sounds like the kind of easy listening exotica that inspired a lot of Stereolab songs. But when you listen more attentively, it flows surprisingly well, no matter the changes in genre or in Monáe’s singing. If the album has a flaw it’s that it’s too long. But it doesn’t run out of ideas or resort to as much filler as other wildly ambitious and long albums like Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It’s more like some of Prince’s classic albums: fearless, experimental, genrehopping, and fun. (The SF concept involves androids in the far future; you can pay as much attention to that aspect of the album as you want, because it works fine with or without it.)

I’m not so sure what the concept is behind Kelis’s album, but it’s a striking contrast to Monáe’s. It’s inventive and fresh and enjoyable, but the musical focus is much more on dancefloor sounds, particularly house and electro. Not a style of music I’m intimately familiar with, but I can say that it reminds me at times of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, only less obvious and less self-indulgent. It’s a much shorter album than Monáe’s, though, so the comparative stylistic unity doesn’t get to be too much. And though it’s dance music there are interesting interludes between tracks and some solid hooks that catch the attention of people who aren’t very likely to find themselves out clubbing. Like me, for example. I may not have as much to say about Flesh Tone as I did about The ArchAndroid, but there’s nothing wrong with an album that does a couple of things very well indeed.

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