Janelle Monáe has often described herself as a time traveler. While driving to work this morning and listening to the title track of her new album The Electric Lady, I finally got to see her time-hopping powers at work.
Picture it: Charlotte, 1997. I’ve briefly beaten my mother in our never-ending battle over what radio station we’ll listen to while she drives me to school. I usually opt for the pop station KISS 95.1, but this morning I’ve settled on Power 98 (rounded up from 97.9) to get my required dose of hip-hop (which my mother loathes) and R&B actually produced in my lifetime. After ads for local car dealers and payday loan companies, No Limit Larry puts on a bright, comfortable, just-danceable-enough song praising the virtues of the attractive, intriguing, empowered titular lady in question. The singer sounds about equally split between objective admiration and confident infatuation with the last line before the chorus: “Ooh! Shock me one good time!” Though it’s not actually 1997—despite the synthy, Late New Jack Swing vibe of Monáe’s “Electric Lady”—it might as well be with the chances a song by a woman about another woman has of being played on any mainstream R&B station in America.
My friends and I have been trying to queer Janelle Monáe for a while. I like to think I mean this mostly in the detached, academic sense of the verb “to queer”; looking for queerness in her work, the non-embodied, no-really-her-personal-life-is-irrelevant kind of queerness. But in reality I’ve never quite been able to hide the gossipy side of it, the self-affirming motivations that would, if confirmed or denied outright, potentially doom her current project (though in a Frank Ocean world, not her career as a whole). Fans of Monáe will be familiar with the frustrating contradiction of admiring just how much effort obviously goes into her work while wishing it weren’t so calculated, sometimes as cold as the metal that makes an android an android. The distance this creates can sometimes make us look all the more diligently for clues that she’s “one of us,” not just to claim her for ourselves as queer or straight but to give her a little human warmth at all. And this distance seems to be as integral to her Metropolis project as her black and white uniform is to her public persona. While it’s natural to want people you admire on “your team,” I’m getting to a point where I can’t help but wonder if we’re asking ourselves, and Madame de Pompadour herself, all the wrong questions.
Of course there’s plenty in her music to make you raise an eyebrow. Dissertations could be (and hopefully will be) written about Janelle Monáe’s expressions of identity and sexuality, especially once The Electric Lady is taken into account. Anyone who has seen the video for “Dance Apocalyptic” won’t need an explanation of the female rock star—another Monáe persona who happens to share her name with the new album—blowing kisses at her fawning, hysterically-screaming, all female audience. There are also multiple appearances of the still-mysterious Mary, who might be the same “Blueberry Mary” we met on 2010’s ArchAndroid, mentioned in “Mushrooms & Roses” who was apparently “crazy about me.” “Me” could have been whoever was singing the song, Janelle or her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather or both or neither. Now she asks us, “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?” in “Q.U.E.E.N.” and later implores another (or perhaps the same) Mary to “wake up…you got the right to choose” in the emotional but still somewhat inscrutable “Sally Ride” towards the album’s end. That the song incorporates elements of “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Mustang Sally” while still being named after a queer icon (who only came out posthumously) cannot be an accident because if there’s one thing Janelle Monáe seems not to be into, it’s coincidence. But with her constant persona-shifting, who’s to say how many Marys there even are? I suppose our favorite android is the only one who could, but given her history of oblique answers to pretty much any questions, we should probably just form our own opinions.
It’s also worth pointing out that her two most notable collaborators on this album are Erykah Badu on “Q.U.E.E.N.” and The Purple One himself on “Givin Em What They Love.” Badu brought us 1997’s Baduizm (which still makes me wanna get my neo-soul earth-mother on to this day) and has been changing and morphing into different personae ever since in a way that Monáe should take as an example. When I hear the grounded, earthy, full-bodied womanhood that Badu lends to “Q.U.E.E.N.”, I can really start to believe Monáe’s claim that this album would be “more personal.”
And Prince being, well, Prince, can’t help but travel in a cloud of magnetic, sexual energy. By the time we get to the end of “Givin Em What They Love” that energy (plus a heavy dose of funk) is thick, so it almost caught me off guard when I heard lyrics as frankly sapphic as these:
Two dimes walked up in the building
Tall and concealing wearing fancy things
Sharper than a knife, hammered like a screw
When they walked in the room
We didn’t know what to do
One looked at me and I looked back
She said can you tell me where the party’s at?
She followed me back to the lobby
Yeah she was looking at me
For some undercover love
I’ve been mainlining “Givin Em What They Love” since the livestream showed up online last week, and my first thought beyond “holy shit a Prince duet” was “this is really, really gay.” (I won’t even touch that Prince’s dirty, dirty “Darling Nikki” also starts in a lobby, or we’ll be here all day.)
What’s important though isn’t whether or not Monáe herself is queer, it’s that The Electric Lady unequivocally is. The reviews that I’ve read so far criticizing the album for being straight up R&B after the genre-hopping ArchAndroid are missing the point. Like me and so many other black and brown girls out there, Janelle Monáe grew up listening to R&B and soul and I see nothing wrong with her narrowing her focus a bit, for a few very important reasons. First of all, genre blending is great but doing it for its own sake is not necessarily going to result in a “better” album—and such criticisms amount to a complete dismissal of the diversity of R&B itself, and of the influences found all over this album (from Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, and Lauryn Hill down to somewhat forgotten ’90s girl groups like Jade and Brownstone). Second, since music criticism is so often so very white, it can be easy for people who grew up seeing themselves as part of the cultural mainstream—or in white privilege’s sneakiest trick, not thinking of themselves as having a culture at all—to not understand how hard it is to keep up with what everybody else has going on. Double consciousness is exhausting and sometimes you get tired enough to say fuck it, I just want some R&B because dammit, it’s mine. Not to mention that the genre itself has been in desperate need of rehabilitation after the autotuned, uninspired ravages it has suffered over the last decade or so. Perhaps most of all though, what we miss when we dismiss someone of Monáe’s caliber producing an R&B album that’s easily recognizable as such is that queer people don’t get to take for granted mainstream music that both reflects and validates us.
Like so many other queer people, I’ve learned to resign myself to never hearing about desires that I can relate to in mainstream music, not just desire for women but desire for women expressed in ways that I can’t get in songs written and performed by men. It’s not that I don’t understand what Miguel means when he sings, “Let my love adorn you,” but that I can’t relate to the later line that says “these fists will always protect you” because, um, that’s not the first place a queer woman’s mind goes when you say the word fist. And as far as I’m concerned, no lyrics sung by a man have anything on Monáe when she says “she’ll have you falling harder than a Sunday in September” in the album’s title track because damn, haven’t we all known a woman like that? Same with a later song where she tells us “it’s too late you’re hypnotized/she’s got Dorothy Dandridge eyes.” It’s something in the lyrical choices that I think only a woman could make, appreciating female beauty with a vocabulary that, unfortunately for them, it seems like most male lyricists have not been taught.
While obviously these days there is a lot of lesbian music available and I do like a lot of what’s out there, sometimes I get tired of having to look to that which my mother so often called “white” music when I messed with the radio just to find songs about the kind of love that I know. For every queer and queerish R&B artist out there who you have to do some intense Googling to find, there are innumerable white queer artists who are easier to find, listen to, and see live. To borrow from James Baldwin, “I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself” in most indie rock, EDM, and that Lilith Fair acoustic guitar sound of the stereotypical but also canon sound of lesbian music. And I, for one, am tired of having to try.
I want a queer R&B canon so established that it has its own stereotypes, that the next generation of queer brown kids can scoff at and take for granted the way queer white kids often do with the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge (though for the record, I do love the absolute shit out of “I’m the Only One”). Unfortunately for now, when you Google “queer R&B,” the first few pages of results are almost entirely news stories about Frank Ocean, or artists who have come out or been outed after their mainstream success ended. I don’t know about y’all but I’m sick and tired of ignoring the R&B I love and was raised on just because it insists on ignoring me. Luckily, with The Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe is showing us that she really could time travel all along; to a future where one day another brown girl more fortunate than I can mess with the radio in her mother’s car on the way to school and find music that reflects not just parts of who she is, but all of who she is. As Monáe tells us in the second verse of the title track: “come on get in/my spaceship leaves at ten.” Don’t be late.