Bumbershoot: Janelle Monáe: Blues Traveler

The robo-soul siren’s music knows no earthly limits.

Few female breakout artists have had as much buzz as Janelle Monáe did in 2008. In the realm of contemporary soul, she was the rising star. When her debut album, Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase, was released in late 2007, Monáe quickly became revered just as much for her quirky-yet-powerful wail as for her style of dress—she's often decked out in a white, Rat Pack–era tuxedo jacket, black pants, and a pompadour. Her eye-catching appearance helped market her to the masses as a stylish soul vixen who sang and harmonized about being a robot from outer space that crashed on earth and fell in love with a human.In a way, Monáe is the antithesis of Erykah Badu, the woman she's often compared to. Monáe came up under OutKast's tutelage, and judging by her sense of dress and dance moves, which the Village Voice's Rob Harvilla described as being "like a robot trying to do the human," she could be considered André 3000's female counterpart. But Monáe's got a strong disdain for comparisons."There's only one Erykah Badu and one Janelle Monáe," she says. "We have a very close relationship, but there will never be another one of either of us. I don't like when lazy writers try to quickly categorize something because it's not the same. Claude Monet said it best: 'People discuss my art as if it's made for them to understand. It's not made for anyone to understand. Either you like it or you don't.'"This isn't Monáe in a bad mood; it's an artist positioning herself for elbow room in a society that constantly wants to box her in. At April's EMP Pop Conference, Princeton University professor Daphne A. Brooks delivered a 30-minute lecture on Monáe's movements and dance politics, labeling her as this generation's Tina Turner. While it's a point that has merit, what a lot of people are missing about Monáe is that she puts the art of performing above all else, politics be dammed. Even finishing her follow-up record—Metropolis Suites II and III, due out in January—is of less concern than getting onstage and acting it all out."I'm most excited about performing the songs, and then folks will understand," she says of the upcoming release. "My home is onstage. I'm like James Brown; I love performing. I consider myself a magician sometimes, and I love doing magic tricks onstage and just trying out new things."Not surprisingly, the Kansas City prodigy grew up studying dance and theater, which led to a stint pursuing both disciplines at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She became bored quickly with life in New York, however, and eventually moved to Atlanta, where she's currently based.There she began crafting the character Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 android who's the heroine of Metropolis Suite I. Although the album is futuristic in its concepts and musical arrangements, it's still rooted in a voice that sounds honed by down-home church gospel and R&B; you can hear the influence of Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, and even Aaliyah. The instrumentation and overall sound, however, appears to be taken from someplace further."We took a lot of trips to Prague and Turkey while working on the new album," Monáe says. "We brought back teakettles and golden teapots, and we would make really unique sounds. We brought in an orchestra. I played on some of the songs, and we just had a lot of fun."Her friend Kevin Barnes, lead singer of the indie band Of Montreal, guests on the new album, as does OutKast. And Monáe hints at the possibility that Gwen Stefani could be on the record as well. Monáe toured with No Doubt earlier this year and bonded with the polystylistic blonde superstar. "[Stefani] gave me great energy and I felt inspired around her," says Monáe.Chances are Monáe will be testing some new songs at Bumbershoot. She's already searching for an old theater in Atlanta to rent, hoping to sing there weekly leading up to her new release. It's rare to see acclaimed musicians perform weekly in one city these days, but she balks at the notion that she's risen to such stature. "You think that I'm acclaimed already?" she asks. "I haven't really done anything. Naw, naw—I'm the underdog. It never clicks that I reached the top, I'm not eager to get to the top, I'm too busy enjoying my climb."jcunningham@seattleweekly.com

 
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