Janelle Monáe hails from Kansas, bears the same doe eyes as Judy Garland and dreams in Technicolor. This makes drawing comparisons between her world and the world of Oz easy – too easy.
Though unlike Dorothy, Monáe does not want to go home. Instead of silver slippers and pigtails, the Big Boi protege and Bad Boy signee dons saddle shoes and her own version of a pompadour – the Monáe, she calls it. Her voice may be classically trained (she attended New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts), but she learned how to slide and shake by observing James Brown. In reality, Monáe has more in common with science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, as she will prove soon with her first full-length, The ArchAndroid, and her U.S. tour, which starts tonight at Black Cat.
Like Butler from Pasadena, Calif., Monáe escaped mentally and physically from her impoverished Kansas City neighborhood – where, as she once sang, "1, 2, 3, 4 of your cousins is 'round here selling dope" – once she turned her futuristic world of make-believe into an artistic reality, 2008's Metropolis: The Chase Suite EP. The story of The ArchAndroid, out May 18, picks up where Metropolis left off and holds similarities to Butler's Wild Seed, as protagonist Cindi Mayweather discovers the fate of her android community to be in her hands.
“What is revealed is that she is indeed the one, like the archangel or Neo from The Matrix,” Monáe says. “She accepts that, but she also goes through what any person who is being told to lead – the doubt and questioning of herself and what she is capable of doing.”
Over the past year and a half, the Atlanta-based artist traveled with producers Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning to cities like Moscow, Prague and Istanbul, to discover the historical precedents of such feelings.
“Sometimes we can just sit quietly and hear different things in silence, and sometimes we would just go into the city and we would just get a vibe,” Wonder says. “Just the fact that a lot of people have walked by the same spot for centuries, and just trying to be in a different environment and soaking up the environment was part of the creative process.”
The ArchAndroid features raspy rapper Saul Williams and spazzy dance collective Of Montreal – a colorful, punk-inspired line-up for an album also influenced by painters Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. “We talk to each other in color when we're trying to describe what a song needs more of, in that sense,” Wonder says. “So it's like when you're painting a picture, and you're like, 'Oh, that's too red.'”
To cater to listeners who favor singles to albums, Monáe had once intended for The ArchAndroid's two parts, the second and third suites of the Metropolis series, to be released separately. But now, as evidenced by the album's 18 tracks, Monáe is eager to release her story as an “emotion picture experience” – one that, according to Wonder, made Diddy cry the first time he heard it.
“This album is just a representation, musically and lyrically, to the parallels that are with me, Janelle Monáe,” she says. “It really has transformed me. We like to think of the music as really transformative. I mean, I've cried to songs. It evokes so many different emotions in me that allowed me to know that I can use my unique qualities, my own superpower, and become an aid to change.”
Monday, March 15th 8 p.m., 1811 14th St. N.W., 202-667-4490, www.blackcatdc.com, $15.