04.28.14 8:45 AM ET
In the Backseat With Janelle Monae: A Limo Ride with the Stylish R&B Diva
Janelle Monáe is heading home to Wondaland. The cult-favorite R&B singer and her inseparable collaborators Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning have just held a midday panel discussion of their work in front of an audience at the Asheville music festival Moogfest, followed by a rushed tour of the Moog Music electronic instrument factory and the shortest photo shoot in recorded history. (“Can you just stand next to that brick wall right there?”) Now, the trio and their entourage have piled into a limo to whisk them back to the airport and to the Atlanta compound where the three of them work their magic.
“The artist’s job is to give people hope,” Monáe declared at the panel—the sort of grand pronouncement she likes to make. In the car, I ask which artists give her hope right now. “Pharrell is inspiring for us,” Monáe says. “We share a lot with him. And I loved that documentary Cutie and the Boxer. Ushio Shinohara and his wife are artists; they've been together for over 40 years. He's still inspiring.”
Wonder and Lightning jump in: “And that guy Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi!” “And Stevie Wonder, and Prince, and Quincy Jones, and J.J. Abrams, and Toni Morrison, and…George R.R. Martin!”
To listen to Monáe and her associates talk is to hear a nonstop barrage of allusions, references and quotations to the artists and thinkers they love. That goes double for their music. Nearly everything they’ve recorded so far, including last year’s album The Electric Lady, is part of a grand science-fictional project involving Monáe’s time-traveling android alter ego Cindi Mayweather, savior of a city called Metropolis that owes as much to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of that name as to Monáe’s hometown of Kansas City. Her songs draw on Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and contemporary hip-hop. Even Prince himself turns up for a duet on The Electric Lady.
Monáe, Lightning and Wonder met through Morehouse College’s arts organization The Dark Tower Project, and everything they do seems to be worked out with a fine artist’s conceptual rigor, up to and including their signature outfits. And they never break character, even offstage—at least in front of the press. As always, Monáe’s wearing a tuxedo and the other two are in black suits. The tuxedo, Monáe explains, symbolizes control to her: “Superheroes wear the same thing every day, too.”
Her newest single is a dubstep-inflected reinvention of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and Bowie is clearly another source of inspiration for the way Monáe plays with gender images and sci-fi tropes. Does the team think about radically changing the way they present themselves, as Bowie has? Wonder cranes around, skeptically: Their image is part of their brand, he says. He cites Jim Collins and Jerry Porras's Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. “It’s about what it is to be a brand in a world where capitalism is the main measure of success. Branding simplifies what we do, and lets us focus our energy on music; our days are more focused on the products that we’re trying to make.”
Besides Monáe’s work, and Wonder and Lightning’s duo Deep Cotton, they’ve got their own label, Wondaland Arts Society, and hint at plans to build it up into a launching pad for work by likeminded artists. (There is a “Wondaland Mystery School,” whose mystery they are preserving for the moment: they apparently prepared a slideshow about it for the morning’s discussion, but as soon as it popped up on the screen, they decided not to present it.)
Still, as much of a draw as Monáe is as an album artist and a live performer, she's only cracked the Hot 100 once—guesting on fun.’s 2011 No. 1 hit “We Are Young.” Her own records are exceptionally thoughtful, but in the context of pop radio, they can sometimes seem overwrought. How much room, I ask, is there for error and accident in her work? “About 15 percent,” she deadpans. “‘Fail and fail often’ is the motto; if you don’t want to experience failure, do nothing.”
Lightning recalls an example of a happy accident in their music. “There’s an earlier version of ‘Tightrope’”—the single from Monáe’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid—“that was all about the Singularity,” the point at which machines outstrip human intelligence. “There are still lyrics there, particularly in the background vocals, that are from that version, where you have the robots singing—”
Monáe grabs the thought and completes it: “—about how computers have dreams.” The Singularity, and author Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about it, come up a lot when the three of them talk; the Cindi Mayweather story they’ve been telling since Monáe’s 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase) is, in part, a story about what it would mean to be post-human.
The flip side of that, though, is their passion for the soul music of the past, and for its promise of redemption. That’s a vision that means a lot to Monáe. The most recent book that inspired her, she says, was Paulo Coelho’s fable The Alchemist: “It’s a more Eastern, spiritual version of The Wizard of Oz. And I’m from Kansas, so it gave me some peace.”