Janelle Monae: out of this world
This is the first – and, let’s be honest here, only – time we’ll ever have a self-proclaimed time traveller as a New Music pin-up. Acts such as Janelle Monae just don’t pop around here for tea and biscuits all that often.
Born in Kansas, Monae followed the yellow brick road to New York in search of fame and fortune and ended up studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. From there, she decamped to Atlanta, where she bumped into OutKast’s Big Boi.
Hip-hop’s favourite pitbull breeder gave Monae a few breaks. She had a guest spot on one of his mixtapes and appeared in OutKast’s Idlewild flick in 2006. Then she decided to set up the Wondaland studio and collective to pursue her own musical ideas.
You can hear a whole bunch of those ideas on her debut album. Metropolis: The Chase Suite. A larger-than-life mix and match of hip-hop, jazz, soul, Broadway musical theatre and slam-poetry lyrical verve, it’s a sci-fi concept album set in 2719, when a female robot has fallen in love with a human being.
Leaving aside the concepts and time-travelling for a moment, the time really is right for an act like Monae to come along and turn r’n’b on its head.
What she’s doing isn’t a million miles removed from Grace Jones when that queenpin was nightclubbing to beat the band. Still, we still haven’t come across so much outlandish ambition in this neck of the woods in an age.
Meanwhile, Monae’s gallery of superstar fans continues to grow. P Diddy was so impressed that he signed her to his Bad Boy label. Since then, he has called Monae “possibly the most important signing of my career”, though we reckon Biggie Smalls might have something to say about that.