Janelle Monáe: The Billboard Cover Story

Marc Baptiste

Janelle Monae

"The Electric Lady" -- The album that will turn the singer from iconoclast to icon

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

Wondaland smells like sugar cookies. No one is baking in the towering Atlanta home, though there is a delicate spread of dip and crudites arranged on the kitchen counter, next to a jug of a fruity cocktail known as Wondapunch. But the cookie scent is both mouth-watering and pervasive: It's being pumped through the AC, augmented by scented candles in every room, and seems meant to relax everyone who steps across the threshold. It gives an olfactory depth to a place already set up to foster ideation: the theme-roomed studio/playhouse in a tony area of Atlanta, where soul-funk cyborg-goddess Janelle Monáe records all of her music.

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Wondaland is HQ for Monáe's label and music community, known as the Wondaland Arts Society, a self-described "transmedia manufacturing company and mystery school" with the stated goal of building and destroying 10 art movements in 10 years. There is a studio in the basement decorated with albums from Jimi Hendrix and Earth, Wind & Fire, equipped with a coterie of instruments and state-of-the-art production equipment. The "jungle room" is a mirrored practice space with even more instruments, where Monáe practices her live show with her band amid a mini tropical forest of potted trees and shrubs. And it was in the "Occupy Wondaland" room, inside a tall white teepee next to the wall clock-dotted foyer, where Monáe wrote a good chunk of her forthcoming album, The Electric Lady (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy/Atlantic). Due in September, it's her first in three years.

"We took our time to work on it," says Monáe, perched on a stool in her studio, the lights dim. "We felt a shift in the world ... a shift in our music and freedom, with life and politics and where we are as a society. Every time is not always the right time for you to come out with something. You just get a feeling [when the time is right]. We call that listening to our 'soul clock.' As you can see, we got about 60 clocks up there [in the foyer] that we look at as inspiration. That tells us to listen to our soul clock, because we're giving you 60 different times up there: You really have to go with your compass."

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As a singer, songwriter, producer, performer and fashion plate, Monáe is one of the most unique mainstream musicians America has seen in years, and "The Electric Lady" -- co-produced with two of Wondaland's artists, psych-punk act Deep Cotton and soul composer Roman GianArthur -- underscores that her personal compass is worth trusting. On April 23 she released lead single "Q.U.E.E.N.," a freaky funk jam with Erykah Badu, with the accompanying video garnering more than 4 million YouTube views in a week. (The track has sold 31,000 copies, according to Nielson SoundScan.) No small feat for a clip that promotes guerrilla art, critiques institution, advocates self-love and features coded language from the vogue scene ("ooh, she's serving face") in the first bar, before ending with a pro-equality rap referencing sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. There's always something deeper going on in a Monáe song.

Listen to Tracks From Deep Cotton and Roman GlanArthur:

With "Q.U.E.E.N.," she says, "I feel like there are constant parallels with me as a woman, being an African-American woman, to what it means for the community that people consider to be queer, the community of immigrants and the Negroid-the combination between the 'N' and the android. All of us have very similar fights with society and oppressors, with those who are not about love, who are more about judging. There are two different types of people: Some people come into this world to judge, some people come into this world to jam. Which one are you? It's a question we should all ask ourselves. My job is to create art that starts a dialogue, to create songs and lyrics that ask society these questions, by using myself as a sacrificial lamb."

The Electric Lady promises to expand on the utopian cyborg themes Monáe explored on her debut album, 2010's "The ArchAndroid," into more plainspoken, personal territory, and further fiddle with genres beyond funk and soul, including jazz ("Dorothy Dandridge Eyes"), pop-punk ("Dance Apocalyptic"), gospel ("Victory") and woozy, sensual vocal ballads ("Primetime").

"This album has a lot of songs that can get played on mainstream radio," Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald says. "Before, we got a lot of attention in the press, on the blogs, on the video networks. But we didn't crack the code at radio. So if you connect that last dot, it's going to be a significant improvement from the last album cycle. Which is really going to put her music in so many people's homes."

Born into a working-class family in Kansas City, Kan., Monáe developed her omnivorous music taste early, hearing James Brown, funk and blues from her father's side of the family and classical hymns from her mother's side-hence the interplay of classical flourishes, dramatic dancefloor prog and deep robot-funk on her near-universally acclaimed, Grammy Award-nominated "The ArchAndroid," which debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 186,000 copies. Since her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (Bad Boy), she's been instantly recognizable by her pompadoured coif and black-and-white tuxedo uniform.

NEXT PAGE: 'I Never Liked People Telling Me What to Do'

Today, she's wearing a checkerboard blazer, while her longtime producers from Deep Cotton, Nate "Rocket" Wonder and Chuck Lightning, opt for straightforward black. There is no one like the trio, dressed in black-tie attire at 2 in the afternoon, and every minute of every other day, at least in public. On The ArchAndroid's "Faster" and on "Q.U.E.E.N.," Monáe rhetorically wonders if she's a "weirdo" or a "freak," but fans recognize her steadfast adhesion to her own aesthetics as not compromising principles for the sake of easy fame. "I never liked people telling me what to do," she says. "I also wanted to own something: I've always had this thought of owning my own label, of being in charge of my words, my art, everything you hear. My goal wasn't to be the most famous person overnight -- it was to make music on my own terms, develop myself and understand if my words were necessary to young people like myself and to make my family proud."

This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.

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