Album Review

Monáe casts a cosmic spell

May 24, 2010

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Almost as an aside, Janelle Monáe says something funny toward the end of “Tightrope,’’ the contagious breakthrough track from her new full-length debut: “Now put some voodoo on it.’’

That suggests Monáe is about to cast a cosmic spell, which is exactly what she does on “The ArchAndroid,’’ one of this year’s most thrilling albums. Imagined as a pair of suites — explaining the narrative would take this entire review, trust me — it’s the latest entry in Monáe’s futuristic vision of everything from old-school R&B and heavy funk to psychedelic rock and Broadway pop. If the album’s 18 tracks don’t paint a cohesive portrait of the artist as a young woman, that’s probably the point. At 24, Monáe has carefully cultivated an intergalactic persona that lifts a middle finger to convention and category.

“The ArchAndroid’’ is proof that you don’t need to buy the backstory to love Monáe’s music. It’s both jarring and exhilarating how disjointed the record often feels, from the dreamy Tin Pan Alley balladry of “Sir Greendown’’ to the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins freakout “Come Alive (War of the Roses).’’ Bleeding into each other, “Dance or Die’’ (featuring Afropunk musician Saul Williams) and “Faster’’ pack a dizzying one-two punch.

By the 12th song, “The ArchAndroid’’ moves into another suite (complete with a cinematic overture), but it isn’t nearly as compelling as its predecessor. The album suddenly starts to sputter and cough, as if catching its breath from the past hour’s wild head rush. You’re bound to feel the same way. (Out now)


ESSENTIAL “Tightrope’’

Janelle Monáe opens for Erykah Badu at the Orpheum Theatre on June 6.