Space is the place
Janelle Monáe is not in Kansas anymore.
Eli, a smart-ass math whiz, and Chloe, a sexy senator’s daughter with a Harvard degree, are stuck billions of light years from Earth on an ancient spaceship. The two teleport their minds into the bodies of a pair of Earthlings to check up on friends and family and, for kicks, take in a concert of Janelle Monáe, a pixieish pop star with a poufy pompadour, tuxedo and punky R&B songs about androids.
If you’re a huge nerd, you might recognize the plot from episode 107 of Syfy Network’s Stargate Universe. Of course, it’s utter fantasy—except for Monáe. In 2007, the nascent, Kansas-born pop star created her own new Oz, a city in the year 2179 called Metropolis, on a debut EP, Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase. The first part of a multialbum narrative introduced Monáe’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an Alpha Platinum 9000 robot, model no. 57821. “I’m an alien from outer space,” she declared in the first line of her first single. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.
Ringing up the 25-year-old, we begin with the typical icebreaker rigmarole: Where are you? When did you move to Atlanta? Yadda, yadda. Monáe answers each question with some whimsical hokum off the top of her head. She pauses when dreaming up each silly response, letting her imagination spin for a moment as she dials up some colorful scenario.
Thus, as we chat, we learn that: One, Monáe is sitting on some rocks at the Metropolis boat docks, “meditating.” (She’s actually, clearly, in an office.) Two, the “time traveler” came to Atlanta in 1947. (More likely, it was about five years ago, after the Kansas City native attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in NYC.) And, three, the headquarters of her Wondaland Arts Society is a Warholesque factory filled with “naked painters and surrounded by a moat and petrified dinosaur eggs.” (In fact, plugging the address of her producers, Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning of Deep Cotton, into Google Maps points to a suburban residence in southwest Atlanta.)
So why all the fantasy? It could be a way to avoid having to open up to the press. “I don’t think it’s that far from what Bowie did with Ziggy Stardust,” Monáe admits. “I don’t think he was trying to hide David Bowie. He knows himself. He just found out something that was more interesting to share at the time.”
Currently, the Isaac Asimov fan is reading one of her favorites, Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, the first prominent African-American woman to pen sci-fi. “I’ve always been intrigued by the unknown,” says Monáe, who does reveal that, growing up, she was inspired by her male cousins’ X-Men comics, Alfred Hitchcock flicks and the Twilight saga.
Big Butlerian themes of gender, social status and identity run through Monáe’s upcoming, stunning long-playing debut, The ArchAndroid, parts II and III of the Metropolis Suite. With as much Pee-wee Herman as Prince in her melting pot of influences—especially in the wardrobe department—her genius lies in making brainy, goofy material both irresistibly upbeat and deeply soulful. “Locked Inside,” a love song based on fear of the future and death, moonwalks along with Monáe’s honey-sweet voice like Michael Jackson working a cruise ship. The first single, “Tightrope,” bumps and shakes à la “Hey Ya!” (and features frequent mentor and collaborator Big Boi of OutKast).
Science fiction and fantasy have long been a small part of black urban music, from George Clinton’s mothership and Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock to Kool Keith and MF Doom’s superhero and supervillain shticks. “People’s reality is stupid and boring,” Monáe postulates. “My reality isn’t boring. But sometimes I think that reality can be boring. People want to go to an alternate world. It’s an outlet. I don’t want to do anything crazy to get excitement. Just use my imagination.”
Janelle Monáe visits Schubas Monday 29 and Tuesday 30. The ArchAndroid is out in May.