Janelle Monae - Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)
When I wrote my review of the phenomenal, incomparable new Janelle Monae album The ArchAndroid, I was sure to note that I wasn't familiar with the original EP that kicks off Monae's Metropolis world and mythos. One excitingly fortuitous trip to the record store later, and I'm aware and ready to talk about the way this whole project begins and how the first suite fits together with the subsequent two. On Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), Monae sets the scene of a world populated by humans and androids. It's a world that is far from egalitarian. Instead, androids are, as they are in so many sci-fi dystopias, subjugated and replaceable. In the opening track, Monae takes on the voice of a public address announcer, letting us know that one such android has fallen in love with a human man. That won't do in Metropolis, so the android, Monae's character through whom we experience all of the story within these albums, is sentenced to be disassembled. (And now the requisite Short Circuit comment, "No disassemble!" And scene.) From that point of exposition, Monae's exceptional voice takes over for four more tracks that guide us through her character's fugitive journey. It's the same amazing blend of pop, hip hop, R&B, soul and big band. The horns are bright, even if our heroine's future seems bleak.
Metropolis is a strong showcase of what Monae can do, but it doesn't bear the same layers of complexity on the full-length follow-up. Space and time, of course, are major constraints on an EP. It's hard enough to demonstrate artistic value in five songs, let alone to set up a tale of this magnitude. In that respect, Monae succeeds through sticking to her vocals and the brilliant arrangements that guide each song from one sub-genre to another. With the narrower scope, she's safe to let the story play out without attempting anything hugely diverse. Metropolis ends up being a satisfying collection, with four amazing tracks. "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" is fun, raucous and strong. "Many Moons" is pure genius, winding Monae's vocal range among stellar beats and beautiful music. And "Cybertronic Purgatory" and "Sincerely, Jane" both set the stage for the symphonic sprawling work to come on The ArchAndroid.
And then there are two bonus tracks, on the special edition version I have. Both "Mr. President" and "Smile" are beautiful songs. The former a protest/call for assistance in education and healthcare, in plain terms. Monae wears her politics on her sleeve here, and it's well done, but it definitely doesn't fit with the Metropolis theme. It can, in its own way, play as a piece to the puzzle, but it's construction is so different from the preceding tracks and those that follow on The ArchAndroid to throw it freely into the canon. "Smile" is much the same way, a sweet, mellow ballad of sorts, it just doesn't fit the world it has been arbitrarily attached to. Still, Metropolis opens the Monae saga brilliantly, and locks us into the vibes and ideas that will drive such songs as "Tightrope," "Oh, Maker" and "Come Alive."
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