Ever since her debut album The ArchAndroid brought Janelle Monáe and her robotic alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, to the public’s attention three years ago, the pop star hasn't so much as been redefining the world of contemporary music as completely demolishing it. In place of self-congratulatory lyrics and songs about blurring lines, she has constructed a dystopian sci-fi world: one in which marginalized androids find a savior in Mayweather herself, who becomes revered in her attempts to combat the ills of her society.
The adventures of Mayweather continue in The Electric Lady, Monáe’s newest album, slated for release on September 10. As those familiar with her work have come to expect, this album is imbued with social commentary and science fiction narratives, threaded meticulously together into absurdly well-crafted songs. Monáe's publicist sent me some of the new album's tracks, and they were killer. Along with the single “Q.U.E.E.N.”, her collaboration with Erykah Badu, it's proof enough that The Electric Lady will continue Monáe’s tradition of blowing minds and exploding genres.
Yesterday I spoke with Monáe about her new album and how science fiction influences her work.
MOTHERBOARD: Besides the film Metropolis, which you've cited before, what other futuristic or science fiction books, movies, or albums have influenced you?
Janelle Monáe: I love Brave New World by Aldous Huxley as well as Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.
What is it about those that really gets your attention?
I really enjoy the story and all of Brave New World. It was pretty scary. I grew up with my grandmother watching a lot of Twilight Zone and I’ve just always been drawn to the horror in those stories. And you think about, in Brave New World, the society where these people were living… I guess the whole entire story about the society was pretty freaky.
And so I wanted to create a society based off this society as an android. I wanted my story to have someone who doesn’t fit in and realized that they had a lot of superpowers, that they were the chosen one. Almost like Neo from The Matrix, which is another one of my favorite movies. And this person I wanted to be a uniter, someone who could cause that society to start to think for themselves and start to make an uprising for their community.
So I’m drawn to those stories where people may all seem alike and you have that one person who ignites to start the fight.
So what do androids represent for you in particular?
A new form of the Other. Someone we can parallel the Other to: African-Americans, women, gays, lesbians, immigrants, and so on and so on. The minority and the majority—the one that does not have equal rights as normal human beings.
Why do you think science fiction is such a good vehicle for addressing contemporary social issues?
Science fiction is just an exciting and new way of telling universal stories and it allows the reader to come to the conclusion and draw parallels between the present and the future. I don’t think we enjoy when people remind us, today, this is what’s going on in the world. You know, sometimes we’re so used to hearing that this is what’s happening right now that we become numb to it. So when you take it out of this world, [people] will come to the conclusions themselves.
I think it’s important: whatever way you can get the audience’s attention to listen to your message, a strong message at that, then by any means. I think science fiction does that.
That’s awesome. Do you look forward to the Singularity?
Sure. Absolutely. I’m not afraid of the Other. I consider myself to be that. I don’t feel inferior or frightened.
On your new album, what sorts of futuristic or dystopian themes and situations can we look forward to?
Well, it’s a continuation of my conceptual suite. We started with Metropolis, Suite I. Then we did The ArchAndroid, suites two and three. And now we’re on The Electric Lady, suites four and five. And this is somewhat of a prequel, before Cindi Mayweather got her crown and became the ArchAndroid. I wanted to make sure people knew why she was gonna be a symbol and why she was very important. Because she speaks up. She speaks up against slavery and oppression.
Also, this is a love story, a love story between a human and an android.
There are some strong themes, very strong science fiction themes. But the main one has to do with what does she do, what are the topics and things that she expressed that make her a felon or a danger in relation to society.
Who is the Electric Lady?
The Electric Lady is me. It could be you. But the title was inspired by my painting. I would paint every night and sing at the same time in front of thousands of people. And I would paint this female silhouette. I didn’t quite understand what it all meant. So I went home to Atlanta and actually talked to my therapist. She encouraged me to name the theory, name the artwork. So as I was trying to come up with a name for the theory, I had a hard time but I knew whoever was on these paintings, she did not want to be marginalized or characterized. I had to go with my gut reaction and the energy that I got from the painting.
So the words that came from my spirit were, the Electric Lady, because of the electric vibe that I got from the colors and the energy from each canvas.
So I tried to think of a world in where there were more electric ladies. A new breed, a new twenty-first century woman, one that I could aspire to be more like. And I started to ask myself: well, what does the Electric Lady think about love? Politics? Sexuality? Religion? And so on. And that’s what inspired the subject matter on the album.
You know, the Electric Lady does not have a color or a shape or a size. But the one thing we do have in common as electric ladies is our service to community and wanting to nurture the community and wanting to nurture our young girls. And using our superpowers for good and being the change we want to see in the world.
I worked with some incredible musicians to get my point across. I worked with string players and an orchestra. I got a chance to collaborate with some of my favorite artists. Erykah Badu on “Q.U.E.E.N.” Miguel on “Primetime”. Esperanza Spalding on “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”. Solange Knowles on “The Electric Lady”. And last but not least, I got a chance to produce and work with one of my musical heroes, Prince.
I think that it is, in the end, an album that is meant to empower our young women and even our young men. It’s an album that unites us together. So it is very dear and special to me and I just pray that you can use it to find your inner electric lady.