We’re right at the beginning of the story of a rebellious young woman from a small town in Kansas who finds herself transported to a strange new realm filled with surreal landscapes, brilliant colors, exotic sounds and characters at once familiar and otherworldly.
While there’s no place like her hometown near Kansas City, make no mistake: Janelle Monae is already home in the futuristic “Electric Lady” Land she has created on her extraordinary new album.
“Just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t have good ideas that can change the shape of the world,” Monae says with Midwestern matter-of-factness.
An album that debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 chart when it was released on Sept. 6, “The Electric Lady” is a fearlessly innovative postcard from the edge of pop music’s traditional boundaries: Funk, punk, sci-fi, hip-hop, disco, nods to old-school urban radio, James Brown soul and Jimi Hendrix guitar coalesce into a psychedelic backdrop for the bold vocals of Monae and fellow travelers such as Erykah Badu, Solange and Esperanza Spalding.
While there is no wizard behind the curtain in “Electric Lady” Land, there is a prince, as in pop icon Prince, who had the good sense to contribute to the song “Givin Em What They Love.” Diddy and Outkast’s Big Boi are on board as producers for Monae’s follow-up to her critically lauded 2010 debut album, “The ArchAndroid.”
An éminence grise (violet?) for funk-pop experimentalists, Prince is “a lifelong hero” for Monae. Any suggestion that the purple sage’s work may be unfamiliar to her young audience is quickly dimissed.
“Prince has been able to reinvent himself over the decades, and with this generation as well,” Monae says. “My audience is pretty diverse — gay, straight, black, white — but also in age range. A lot of them grew up listening to him,” says Monae, describing herself as “still on high” from working with Prince.
And there is a Dorothy.
Monae was raised among a constellation of women — her mother, a school custodian; her grandmother, a food server at the county jail; aunts and parishioners of the small Baptist church she attended — who taught her that “you can turn nothing into something if you work hard for it.”
The theme of hard work being recognized, no matter one’s race or gender, is symbolized in Monae’s appreciation for an iconic actress in “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” a duet with Spalding. For the 27-year-old Monae, the sexism and racism that prevented Dandridge from becoming a mainstream movie star remain pervasive in a pop-music industry dominated by rap and hip-hop.
“If you think about it, what other black female artist do you see on the chart? [The highest charting African-American females now are Beyonce with the No. 46 single, “Get Me Bodied,” and Tamar Braxton’s album “Love and War” at No. 42.] We’re not getting the credit, not getting invited to the party. It’s ridiculous. It really pisses me the hell off,” Monae says. “We are building a movement against those holding back women of color. It’s important they know that ideas help create change, not your sex. We plan to fight back, with our art as a weapon.”
This week, Monae appeared in a video created by Spalding for a song titled “We Are America,” a powerful protest against the American detention camp at Guantanamo. Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Savion Glover are among others with cameo appearances. Monae says she was quick to accept the invitation from Spalding — “she’s an Electric Lady. I will always be there for her,” Monae says — but she also believes the issues at stake are important for her audience.
“Our president wants us to all come together, stop being lazy and prideful,” Monae says. “We need to be more compassionate and not let the politics in Washington, D.C., distract us from who we are as a country.”