The first time I saw Janelle Monáe I thought, who is this woman in a black and white tuxedo, rocking a '50s pompadour and dancing like she's possessed by James Brown's spirit? And why is she playing androids? I was watching her "Many Moons" video and couldn't turn away. Her music and style were futuristic, yet retro. I kept listening and taking in her lyrics. I was so fascinated by the whole package, I started talking back to the television. "Finally something different!" I yelled. A beautiful, hip young woman singing with her clothes on. No songs about the usual sex, money and popping champagne at the club. The 24-year-old from Kansas covers such issues as poverty, oppression, love and learning to embrace yourself when society considers you "different." Tracks off her new album, The ArchAndroid, tell the story of an android and Monáe's alter-ego Cindy Mayweather. The heroine is on a mission to save a city from an evil underground society. I haven't been this excited about a new female artist since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album debuted. Monáe's socially-conscious lyrics are wrapped in a sci-fi theme with beats that make you dance. No wonder The ArchAndroid is so distinct and alive. As for her vocals? Amazing. Or as my grandma would say, "Now, that gal can sing." Listening to her CD (yes I still listen to CDs) I hear a fusion of OutKast, James Brown, the Jackson 5, George Clinton, Broadway tunes, sci-fi author Octavia Butler and others. Like her music, her style has a purpose. Monáe told BET's 106 & Park she wears her signature tuxedo every performance to pay homage to her working class roots. Her mother was a janitor, her dad drives garbage trucks and her stepfather works in the post office. All wear uniforms to work.
"She's definitely needed because everyone sounds the same," said fan Estelita Espinosa, 18. "If you don't take a risk you don't gain anything." I recently met Estelita at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles when Janelle Monáe opened for Erykah Badu. Fans were into Monae's show from the first note. I could tell those who never heard of her shared my initial reaction of the futuristic diva. They were trying to figure her out. Once she started singing and grooving, the rest of the audience couldn't resist her high energy. Monáe got funky on "Dance or Die" and rocked out to "Cold War." She turned the place out with her latest single "Tight Rope." I did not sit down during the entire show. The audience was on their feet, even when she slowed it down and captivated us with her beautiful rendition of the Charlie Chaplin ballad "Smile."
Watching Monáe perform live made me appreciate her art even more. She's boldly taking her music into a genre where few women and minorities have been able to break into -- science fiction. All the while the eclectic star is shattering the "urban artist" mold many black singers are usually labeled. Just like how Grace Jones did in the '80s and Macy Gray in the late '90s. Monáe's work transcends music categories and should be played on urban radio, rock and pop stations, etc. But that's the problem. Why aren't we getting more Monáe in the mainstream? Check out any of her videos on YouTube and the comments sections are filled with fans praising her as "mind-blowing" but "underrated." Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs signed her to his Bad Boy label. Puffy's star power has gotten her on big shows like Ellen and David Letterman. Still her popularity is steadily rising. Combs was quoted in Billboard.com saying, "This is possibly the most important signing of my career." I agree. The ArchAndroid has arrived and my ears have gladly surrendered.