Janelle Monáe has an otherworldly confidence in her mastery of the breadth and depth of American popular music. Hers is a talent that has overwhelmed and underwhelmed listeners in equal measure: fans include high-profile auteurs like Prince and Erykah Badu, both of whom appear on her latest album The Electric Lady. After she wasn't invited to perform at the BET awards, Prince even made a phone call on her behalf to the network.
Meanwhile, critics compelled to prioritize innovation dismiss her as a pastiche artist, retro-fetishism gone mad. Her methods do create a distance between her and the listener. Monáe constructs a stage show in which the music (and a highly conceptual plotline) create effect after effect, but rarely seem to tap into anything resembling a raw emotional connection. Everything feels highly composed, each reference point—including everything from Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder to Prince to the cod-reggae lilt that closes the album—rendered in perfect approximation of a past legend.
The overall impact of the album is like that of a particularly eclectic DJ mix, an unpredictable roller coaster ride through musical history. But her critics' focus on Monáe's lack of a connection feels misguided. Her work is all about showmanship, a performative focus on craft in the vein of artists whose connection with the audience is based on rehearsed perfection. Furthermore, there is a connection to be made between the listener and Monáe. It's that sense of confidence, that ability to make the entire history of music her birthright. —David Drake