Janelle Monáe: The Billboard Women In Music 'Rising Star' Q&A
Marc Baptiste

Billboard Rising Star honoree Janelle Monáe celebrates ‘unconventional, universal stories’

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When Janelle Monáe graced the cover of Billboard in June, her second album, "The Electric Lady," existed mostly on secret MP3s in the basement of her creative cooperative in Atlanta known as the Wondaland Arts Society. It was closely guarded, but there for the listening if you wanted to kick off your shoes and dance.

In the five months since, "The Electric Lady" has been unleashed into the world with a spark and good will only a feminist “android” like Monáe could muster, led off by instant anthems like the power-funk “Q.U.E.E.N.” (featuring Erykah Badu) and the dreamy rubdown “Primetime” (featuring Miguel). The album features additional collaborations with Prince, Solange Knowles and Esperanza Spalding, while Sean “Diddy” Combs and OutKast’s Big Boi were co-executive producers.


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The album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, and she’s performed its songs on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Arsenio Hall Show” and more, all with the signature professionalism, aplomb and enthusiasm she’s been flossing since her 2010 debut—an electric lady in her own right.

Recognizing both her critical and commercial acclaim, Monáe will be honored as Billboard’s Rising Star of 2013 at the Billboard Women in Music event on Dec. 10 at the Capitale in New York. Monáe will join P!nk, who will be feted with this year’s Woman of the Year accolade.

“From her distinctive style to her unexpected collaborations, Janelle is truly carving her own path in this industry,” Billboard editorial director Bill Werde says. “We are thrilled to celebrate her talents as this year’s Rising Star and look forward to seeing what she does next.”

For her fans, "The Electric Lady" has come to serve as a well-considered tome and guiding light for young women to feel good about themselves, no small feat in today’s climate, but exactly what she’s always set out to do. It’s how she can present herself as a fantastical android, but remain one of the more relatable pop icons.

Monáe is a beacon of humility, with a centered confidence, and naturally disinclined to brag. But a top executive at her record company offers praise on her behalf.

"Janelle’s a real artist, a beautiful woman with a stunning voice,” Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says. “When she’s in my office and she sings her voice is so gorgeous. Then she starts to dance right there in my office and you’re just drawn in to her world.

"She’s a real entertainer, she has it all, she takes risks, and creates great art.

“Janelle wants to make big music that doesn’t depend on a sample or loop,” Greenwald continues. “She makes an album that you’re going to want to put on five to 10 years from now. It doesn’t sound like it’s part of 2014—it’s great music, which she backs up with her performances.

“She’s paved the way for women to take a risk, to not to conform and copy the sound of the day. You don’t have to mold yourself or conform to any stereotype. She understands she’s a role model. Janelle’s so positive, humble and appreciative, she’s a truly lovely person.”

Billboard spoke with Monáe the weekend she opened BET’s Black Girls Rock! special, with a performance of “Electric Lady” replete with a dazzling step team celebrating their inherent badass-ness. She was eating carrots, and in good spirits.

We spoke in June, long before your album arrived. In the months since, you’ve been bestowed with many honors, now including Billboard’s Rising Star award. How do you feel about this year?
I just want to first acknowledge how amazing this honor is, and how humbled I am, how unexpected it was. This is just the beginning of my career, and we’ve worked very hard, and we’ve built something with Wondaland Arts Society. We’ve been working very hard to construct this angle, the music in the music industry, and from the perspective of what it means to be a young female artist these days in the music industry.

My journey is continuing. We’re not stopping or sitting back and reflecting or saying, “Hey, I’ve made it, I’ve arrived.” I’ve acknowledged it, and am acknowledging now, how encouraging it is to be recognized. This year, releasing "The Electric Lady" — which is deeply rooted in community and the female protagonist story of our community—has been such a great joy to be able to tell stories about these women—these unconventional, universal stories that don’t get talked about or discussed all the time.

I made sure that "The Electric Lady" had strong themes, so many walks of life. And now going out and performing the songs and looking at young girls in the audience being inspired by the album, to tour and know that these stories are really encouraging young girls—to know that they see themselves in the album, as a part of this movement—it’s a sign of success. I feel as though we’re continuing to try to be successful and being just that.