She’s done all the right things – got rid of the orchestral suites and 20 minutes of filler that bogged down her last two albums, written brighter and catchier songs, and relegated most of the sci-fi silliness to the accompanying “emotion picture”. So ignore all the guff about this being a portrait of our times etc.; I count only one line that has real contemporary relevance (“if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy bite you back”). The rest is the same generalised dystopian territory about The Other (in her case an android) being victimised and brutalised by a futuristic society that she’s been mining since the beginning of her career. So generalised are the thematics that it could be applied to just about any era, where certain groups of people have always been subjugated – which is, I’m sure, the intention, to make this shit seem universal.
But though she’s no Margaret Atwood, George Orwell or Fritz Lang, I of course fully endorse and get behind the “love in queer spaces” schtick that she celebrates as an alternative to societal (usually white, male, heterosexual) oppression – now or in the vague future. I love that she’s had the confidence to come out as pansexual recently, and I love the reclamation of the colour “Pynk” from cock-rockers Aerosmith with such crafty lines as: “Pynk like the tongue that goes down, maybe… Pynk like the folds of your brain, crazy”. The video builds on that great idea of female self-identification as both lustful and intellectual, taking equal pride in both, with witty fashion choices that need to be seen to be believed. And when her vagina takes a monologue in the confidently rapped “Django Jane”, you know that this album is feminism done right – funny, bold, outrageous, and with just the right level of defiance to patriarchal norms (a high level of defiance).
So it’s easy to be in awe of this album – yet, unfortunately, it’s not as consistently brilliant as I’d expect a great one to be. There are some dud moments towards the end, particularly the 6-minute slog “Don’t Judge Me”, which kills the jubilant vibes of the previous 5 tracks with a slow march to nowhere, and the subpar “So Afraid”, which is only redeemed by the “Let’s Go Crazy”-inspired mission statement of the final track that follows it, “Americans”.
Yep, as has been widely reported Prince is all over this album, which makes sense as he was reportedly working on it with Monáe before he died. He’s there thematically in the “party like it’s the end of the world” track “Crazy, Classic, Life”, and he’s musically everywhere. From the stylistic voraciousness to the pop-funk-rock fusion at its heart, his influence is clearly felt, but particularly and most unavoidably on the “Kiss” ripoff “Make Me Feel”.
I say “ripoff” in the kindest possible way – I adore “Make Me Feel”, it’s easily my favourite song of the year so far, and it’s been in my head for days. Yet, ironically given the theme of the album, it’s a virtual clone of that Prince classic, from its stop-start syncopation right down to the bare bones of its spare funk. I like to see it as a homage, and a great one – Prince is my second favourite artist of all time (after The Beatles) and I sincerely wish more singers would follow his superb blueprint. And it’s an added bonus that my favourite song of the year also contains my favourite line: “powerful with a little bit of tender” is a phrase that has also been in my head for days, a perfect description of falling in love. Just perfect.
There are enough pop hooks and exciting rhythmic touches to keep the rest of the album close to that high level of artistry, although after multiple replays the infectiousness of “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” has faded for this listener. I think Monáe has some work to do to match the consistency of her greatest idol, The Purple One. But this is definitely a significant step in the right direction.