Janelle Monáe, Girl from Another Planet
Open your minds, earthlings, and prepare to be launched headfirst into an alternate universe. A place where robots fall in love with humans. Where your tour guide into this alternate realm is a demure lil thang with a bold set of pipes. "I'm an alien from outer space," declares Janelle Monáe on the first song of her debut album, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition). Yes, Toto, we are no longer in Kansas anymore. Or even planet Earth.
Suspend disbelief for a moment, as you're dropped mid-pursuit into a soaring sci-fi soundtrack. The lush orchestration experiments with elements of musical theater, funk and the dirty south. At one moment, Monáe's voice takes on the metallic trill of Shirley Bassey, the next she's an ethereal siren, followed by a bluesy soothsayer. "No alter ego for me, this android definitely exists," says Monáe of Cindi Mayweather, the heroine of The Chase. Mayweather, she explains, is an "Alpha Platinum 9000 android." She is on the run because she's fallen in love with a human being, a situation that is verboten in the future landscape of Metropolis.
If this all sounds like a bit of a stretch for the imagination, it's just another day in the life of Ms. Monáe, who has always lived by her own compass. Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, she found an escape from rough surroundings through the excitement of her own imagination. "My father had a drug addiction," she explains. "Though there were plenty of good days, it really damaged my family. There were times when mentally I had to create my own world."
She discovered a talent for the arts during school, eventually leaving Kansas City for New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Making the rounds of auditions in the Big Apple proved to be frustrating, though. "I wanted to create my own world. I didn't like that whole typecasting thing," she explains. On a whim, she left on a flight bound for The Netherlands that fatefully had a layover in Atlanta. "I had an intuition about Atlanta. I knew that really creative people like Outkast had come from here, so my subconscious was telling me that I should stay. I felt like this could be a place where I could start my own movement."
That movement now has a name, The Wondaland Arts Society, operating as a studio and collective as well as Monáe's record label. A chance meeting at Def Poetry Jam introduced her to soon-to-be Wondaland co-conspirators Chuck Lightning and Nate "Rocket" Wonder. Together they've fallen into a starry-eyed creative shorthand, staying up all night to dream up songs. "It was almost like we were connected from another land and God sent us all to work together," explains Monáe. While Wonder is the musical genius and production guru, Lightning collaborates on the lyrics and the project's zany sensibility, bringing a cinematic passion to the soundscape. It was Lightning who introduced her to the project's seminal inspiration, the 1927 silent film Metropolis. The Wondaland Arts Society is an independent record label and mystery school that designs capes for superheroes and art for aliens. Ms. Monáe is credited as one of the society's chief founders.
The mutual admiration shared by the three has opened up new avenues of inspiration. "There's something slight of hand about the way her voice works," says Wonder. "We've always wanted to tap into lots of different sides of her. Her fearlessness coupled with the quality of her voice makes it easy for me to try new things. It's like having Judy Garland and Lauryn Hill team up on a record."
Atlanta has provided a rich soil for Monáe's blossoming in other, no less fated ways. It was there that she happened to meet Outkast's Big Boi at a local music event. Considerably impressed with her talent, he invited her to lend featured vocals on "Letting Go" from his Got Purp? Vol II mixtape. With a growing local fan base, it wasn't long before Sean "Diddy" Combs contacted her via MySpace. Sure that she was the target of a practical joke, Monáe ignored his message until Big Boi confirmed that it was indeed the real Puff Daddy who was hitting her up.
Combs was taken with her first single, "Violet Stars Happy Hunting" streaming online. "He fell in love with the overall concept," says Monáe. The exchange led to her current record deal with Bad Boy Records, which allows her full creative control. The Bad Boy deal has allowed the team to create a new framework for releasing music. "Janelle Monáe is one of the most important signings of my career," says Diddy. "There is no doubt in my mind that Janelle is the kind of artist that changes the game. She is a true visionary, with an original sound and a mesmerizing presence. I can't wait to watch her future unfold."
The Wondaland team are also working on video and film projects to come out in conjunction with the upcoming releases, as well as a graphic novel, inked by New Zealand artist Chad Weatherford, who created artwork for Suite I. In April 2008, the Atlanta Ballet interpreted several of Monáe's songs when they debuted "Big with Antwan 'Big Boi' Patton," an original work of dance with songs from various Purple Ribbon artists.
Monáe has carved out her own path by following her instincts. "I want to be looked at as a leader and a businesswoman," she says. "I really feel that music and artists have a huge influence in the way we think. My goal is to help bring as many people as I possibly can together with my music." But it isn't solely about the music. "With regards to the way that I dress, to the things that come out of my mouth, I'm really trying to give a different perspective." Considering for a moment, she adds, "and I think there are a lot of young girls out there who are like me."
She may be living in a fantasy world of her own creation, but Janelle Monáe is confident you won’t want to leave once you’ve visited.