Behind all the cameos, the sci-fi allegory, the eclecticism and the nearly cult-ish Wondaland collective that creates these ultra-intricate jams, Janelle Monáe specializes in generosity. Where others serve up instant-gratification earworms, this Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based dynamo delivers sprawling futuristic funk-rock operas that dazzle on impact yet sustain protracted pleasure. Three years after The ArchAndroid, a long-playing debut that’s still revealing carefully buried treasure, she now releases a sequel equally dense with byzantine sparkle.
The Electric Lady is much more than a monument to maximalism, though. It’s a testimony to the power of particularly female and African-American dreams well-honed and not afraid to freak. Interspersed with radio DJ breaks that only lightly allude to the Cindi Mayweather cyborg narrative of her previous releases, The Electric Lady is nothing less than concept album about black female empowerment via love, otherness and heaps of Hendrix-kissed guitar solos courtesy of Kellindo Parker, who, together with Monáe, Nate “Rocket” Wonder, Chuck Lightning and Roman GianArthur comprise the extraordinary Wondaland posse that write, play and produce this deliciously effusive stuff.
Sometimes she’s singing of women in general, like on her Solange-enriched title track. And sometimes Monáe sings about specific women, like Sally Ride, the first female and known LGBT astronaut; or Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; or her own hard-working mom in the Stevie Wonder-esque “Ghetto Woman.”
But even in those cases, Monáe is seeing macrocosms in her microcosms: Few musicians are more obsessed with the bigger picture than this wizard of her own Oz. And although she screams like a gal not to be outclassed by her idol on “Givin Em What They Love,” her supremely slinky duet with Prince, she’s elsewhere exploring in typically more refined fashion where her clear and versatile soprano can take her — from skittering New Wave (“We Were Rock & Roll” and “Dance Apocalyptic”) to psychedelic cabaret (“Look into My Eyes”). Besides being grounded in multiple generations and permutations of ornately orchestrated R&B, Lady is ultimately soulful for the simple reason that Monáe believes in the alternate reality she’s created for herself so very deeply. It’s complex yet wholehearted because she is.