Kansas City songstress Janelle Monáe was born into the wrong generation. She belongs in the distant dystopian future of her first two records Metropolis and The Archandroid, figured prominently as a time-traveling, messianic android trying to save humanity from oppressors of spirituality and love. Such a high concept, which has stretched all the way into her third album, The Electric Lady, might suggest that Monáe would have been a better fit for the late ’70s, when bloated prog opuses were the art-pop du jour.
Even though she’d place herself in the future and her pretentious tendencies might take her a couple decades into the past, Electric Lady grounds Monáe firmly in the present as a singularly strange figure of the 2013 pop music landscape, and certainly the strangest Bad Boy Entertainment affiliate. Monáe sees herself as something of an art-pop auteur, surrounding her oft-infectious melodies with labyrinthine songwriting choices and unexpected instrumental flourishes (see the syrupy strings on “Can’t Live Without Your Love” or the melodramatic guitar leads on “Primetime”). Needless to say, when she hits, she hits hard and the album would work better if she’d just let the songs do their thing. Unfortunately, the concept overcomplicates things, and lurking just behind each melismatic vocal trill is the suggestion of sci-fi provocations.
If you take your Prince with a fair bit of Philip K. Dick, you might find Electric Lady a success on all counts. Otherwise, just try to ignore the parts about time-traveling robots. (3 and 1/2 out of 5 Stars)