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.
Women In Music 2013
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.
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.
You’ve always been forthright about your support of women, but with "The Electric Lady," you seemed to ramp it up a bit. Even in the “Dance Apocalyptic” video, you have, like, 100 badass women as your audience. Do you feel this album has strengthened your idea of supporting women?
I try to lead by example, and this time I wanted females to own it themselves. I look at myself as an architect and a builder -- someone who’s trying to build and cultivate a movement, someone who’s trying to push forward revolution and new politics and ideas. I just want to orchestrate the change we want to see in our community, to build on the incredible instinct and [be] unafraid to be compassionate and strong and loving and endearing and sexy and intelligent, all these different things.
So I tried with each horn note, each string arrangement, each synthesizer, to get out our stories, our cries and our wars, all the things that I felt emotionally connected to.
Is what you’re doing like a form of community activism, for lack of a better term?
[laughs] Yeah, absolutely! This album is rooted in community, and I look at myself as being part of the community and, as someone who is an artist, I have the opportunity to narrate what is going on in the community. I wanted to have context of what it means to be an “electric lady,” what the community thinks of electric ladies, how we fit into society. I definitely think of myself as an advocate of going out into the community and being the change that I want to see, and I would encourage everybody to be that change for the better.
Now that you’ve been performing the songs on The Electric Lady, are they changing for you artistically? Do the meanings change as you work through them? What does it mean to you as an artist, as you’re seeing people react to them in real time?
It’s encouraging. It keeps me motivated. People come up to me -- there was actually a young girl recently who came up to me and told me she had come out to her parents two days before the show. She said that it was the first time she felt like everything was going to be OK. It brought tears to my eyes. People deal with these issues, feeling they can’t show female appreciation without people calling them weird or gay or whatever it may be. What I want to do, always with the music, is show people that it’s OK to show female appreciation, to admire other women.
At the shows, I don’t just see women, I see men coming with their girls, showing support. These shows have been like none other. I have been unable to even hear myself on some songs because the audience is so loud, they know every word. They know the rap in “Q.U.E.E.N.” These are inspirational words. They’re words that I have to look to for healing when I’m going through things. To know that we’re really trying to empower and enrich their lives, it’s a great feeling that they’re gravitating and hearing it. It’s just so encouraging. It lets me know that when I get tired that there’s somebody there who appreciates you going the extra mile.
The great thing about being an artist is that it gives you the opportunity to truly speak from your heart, and to speak unfiltered. I wouldn’t feel this strong or feel like a community leader if I hadn’t grown up in this community. I grew up in Kansas, I grew up in a working-class family, I grew up with people who have been discriminated against. I have been through so many different things, so that’s why I feel such a strong obligation.
Let’s talk about the “Primetime” video, which came out Oct. 10. You and Miguel have a lot of chemistry, and in certain ways it’s a somewhat conventional clip in that you have a love connection, but at the same time, you still have the consistent Cindi Mayweather vibes, the android feminism you explored through that character on your debut album, "The ArchAndroid," in 2010. What was the idea behind it?
This emotion picture was directed by Alan Ferguson. I love science fiction, and I use it as a way to tell these universal stories and connect with people. This particular story was Cindi’s humble beginnings. She works at a nightclub with androids and she meets her first love, Joey Vice, played by Miguel. You know, love is so important, and in the midst of men groping her, feeling her butt, she complains but her boss sides with the man and says, “Listen, the customer is always right.”
So she ends up making a choice: either stay and deal with it and be objectified, or just quit. And so she quits. Joey Vice sees that and runs after her and tries to cheer her up. He goes to this concert played by Deep Cotton, and it ends with the sky. So it’s a science fiction-inspired emotion picture film, and it’s very sweet. We didn’t want to go overboard. We wanted to leave it up to the imagination. I’m incredibly honored to have worked with Miguel.
The last time we spoke, you showed me the storyboards for the Cindi Mayweather feature-length film. How close are you to getting that out?
It’s already written. But I’m thinking of going and being a part of NASA, joining their tech team, so I can get a free ride to space. So that’s my next move. Who knows what we’re going to do next. We’re definitely in talks and have had people reach out, but we’ll see.
Well then, for 2014, what’s your next move? What do you hope for?
For now, we’re just going to tour. We’ve had an incredible time. I go out with my band, we’ve been selling out pretty much all of our shows, so I’m focused on the present right now. I try not to travel to the future or into the past. Now we’re in the present and we’re live and in color. We’re having one of the most visceral experiences. I don’t generally speak on what 2014 holds, because for 2013, I couldn’t have imagined that I would have been recognized by Billboard, so who knows what will happen.
But that’s the great thing about life: It takes so many unexpected turns. I’m just going to roll with it, and fully invest myself in every experience 2014 has to offer.