By Bill Friskics-Warren
Not since the '70s heyday of George Clinton's Parliafunkadelicment Thang has anyone fused science fiction/fantasy and genre-defying funk with such vision and aplomb as Janelle Monáe does on this full-length debut. The album chronicles the adventures of Cindi Mayweather, a cyber-heroine who's been sent to free the citizens of the mythical Metropolis from a repressive secret society. Even if the at times abstruse plot of her outre "emotion picture" doesn't grab you, Monáe's expansive, high-spirited music almost certainly will.
"Tightrope," the album's first single, is roiling James Brown-style funk featuring Big Boi of OutKast. "Faster" updates the swizzle-stick disco of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. "Say You'll Go" interpolates a passage from Debussy's "Clair de Lune," while "BaBopByeYa," the set's epic closing track, calls to mind both Broadway musicals and James Bond movie scores.
Ever referential, Monáe cites influences musical (Rachmaninoff, Arthur Lee and "Purple Rain") and abstract (Muhammad Ali's fists, Rabbi Loew's Golem and Bob Marley's smile) for each of the album's 18 tracks. From "Locked Inside," a dappled ray of melodic sunshine in homage to Stevie Wonder, to "Mushrooms & Roses," a brooding blues-rocker replete with "guitar orgasms" a la Ernie Isley, Monáe proudly wears these inspirations on her musical sleeve.
"When everything is wrong I dance inside my mind / That's when I come alive, like a schizo running wild," she sings over the punk bass line of one track. Her musical schizophrenia might cause her to overreach at times, but never is she lacking in imagination or commitment.
Janelle Monáe performs at DAR Constitution Hall on May 28 and Pier Six Pavilion on May 30.
Recommended tracks: "Tightrope," "Locked Inside," "Mushrooms & Roses"