Janelle Monáe has become a high-profile star over the course of 10 years. But the type of stardom the singer/songwriter has achieved is unlike the kind associated with most of her peers who have achieved great career heights and gained a high level of popularity.
That’s not to say those peers got to where they are lacking something. It’s just that Monáe is a special talent that doesn’t come around often. Her approach to creativity is visionary. As a result, Monáe’s art doesn’t often align with current trends in the musical mainstream or make concessions in pursuit of a bigger payday. Still, she is embraced by that same mainstream and is certainly a prominent figure in pop culture circa 2018, with tons of people regularly buying her music and tickets to see her in concert.
Music history isn’t littered with uncompromising artists who achieve the kind of status Monáe has, but a few legends — think David Bowie, Prince and, in recent years, Beyoncé — have shown a similar determination to follow their vision and instincts no matter how left of center it takes them, all while retaining and growing their audience and upper-echelon reputation.
Working with forward-thinking collaborators like Outkast’s Big Boi and of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes (she played a memorable opening set with of Montreal at Covington's Madison Theater in 2010, part of the Indie Pop band's tour for False Priest, which she guested on) , Monáe’s album debut, The ArchAndroid, was an amalgam of (among other things) vintage Soul and Funk and more avant-garde and psychedelic Rock and Hip Hop, all filtered through her progressive Art Pop lens. The album revolved around a “dystopian future” storyline that was part Afrofuturism and part classic sci-fi constructs. It’s something that, along with the artful sonic patchwork, has remained a core characteristic of Monáe’s musical personality.
In April, Monáe released Dirty Computer, her most potent artistic statement yet. Musically tighter and more focused, collaborators this time around include Grimes, Pharrell Williams, Brian Wilson and Prince, who assisted on the album before his death. The story of the album is tonally similar to her previous tales, but Monáe wraps the narrative around ideals more close to home. She has said Dirty Computer’s lyrics — about identity and empowerment — come from a more directly personal perspective. Not that the sci-fi level has been decreased — the album was released in conjunction with a visually-stunning 45-minute film that features Monáe as an android who develops a sense of justice in a rigid futuristic society (watch below).