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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Creative independence is an oft-desired goal in the music industry, but Monáe has embodied it from the beginning. In 2007, after Sean “Diddy” Combs discovered her through his friend Big Boi and brought her into the Bad Boy/Atlantic fold, Monáe showed up for her first meeting with label executives and handed out a rulebook of sorts. “She had printed up her core values for everyone in Atlantic, to state who she was and what her responsibilities were, who she is as an artist,” says Wonder, who has been collaborating with Monáe since “Metropolis.” “When we met her, she wasn’t too worried about turning into a star overnight. She was worried about her message, making music that was jamming, that she loved dancing to, that moved her. She brought boxes of a book called ‘The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable’ by Seth Godin. She was like, ‘Let’s get on the same page, and let’s do things that are remarkable.’ That’s how she’s been leading throughout this process.”
Greenwald calls Monáe’s focused business acumen a blessing. “She definitely let us all know, ‘This is who I am as an artist. I want a consistent message.’ It can’t get any better for us at a music company, to get to work with an artist who is so in tune with what they want and what their vision is,” she says. “It really allows us all to march to one beat with her project, and her beat is so magnificent and her vision is just stunning. She’s a magical artist.”
The “ArchAndroid”‘s popularity kept Monáe touring for more than two years, with artists like Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Prince, and her quirky talent kept on delivering milestones to her resume. She performed at the Nobel Peace Prize concert and joined Stevie Wonder at Rock in Rio in 2011, performed for (and confabbed with) big-time fan Barack Obama in 2012 and filled in for Aretha Franklin with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra just last month. In February, Monáe picked up her first Grammy for song of the year “We Are Young,” her collaboration with the rock band fun. (It was also her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, in February 2012, and held the spot for six weeks.)
She’s been choosy about her partnerships but last year, she picked up two major looks. In August 2012, she signed her flawless face to CoverGirl, which she chose in part because she appreciated the makeup brand’s efforts to include diverse types of women in its campaigns, like Queen Latifah and Ellen DeGeneres. CoverGirl Cosmetics VP/GM Esi Eggletson Bracey says, “Our choices of talents are always connected to and reflective of what we are inspired by in the world of pop culture, and what the women our brand serves are inspired by too. Janelle is a true force of energy and a beautiful spirit who delights in her creative journey, not just the destination. We couldn’t wait to show the world another dimension of her artistic ‘superpowers’ as a member of our CoverGirl family.” The brand showcased Monáe in print ads for its Lip Perfection Jumbo Gloss Balm, LashBlast Clump Crusher Mascara and Outlast Stay Brilliant Nail Gloss, and ran a special TV spot during the Grammys set to her song “We Were Rock and Roll.” Plans are in the works for a new campaign featuring the “Electric Lady” song “Dance Apocalyptic.”
In October 2012, she reached another broad audience through a commercial and billboard campaign with wireless home stereo manufacturer Sonos, which was filmed at Wondaland. The commercial, set to “We’re Far Enough From Heaven Now We Can Freak Out,” a song by Deep Cotton, featured Monáe and her besuited compatriots having a dance party in her living room, doing a Soul Train line down the wildly realistic Astroturf that serves as her shag rug. (Deep Cotton–whose “Runaway Radio” EP will be out later this summer–will soon release an official video for “Heaven” that features machine-gun-toting women reciting from Valerie Solanas’ 1968 radical feminist text “The S.C.U.M. Manifesto.”)
“We look at how people normally do things and we try to run the other way,” Sonos industry/artist relations representative Thomas Meyer says. “We wanted to work with an artist who explores art in all its forms. Janelle is the quintessential that type of artist. The Wondaland aesthetic, her entire family has a kind of creative cult that they’re creating down there, and all of that was really important to the process. Being able to go to Wondaland and actually create a film down there was the right way to do it.”
The Wondaland crew, who are currently in the script-and-storyboard stages of a feature-length sci-fi movie based on “The ArchAndroid,” eased right into it. “When we talked about the creative, [Sonos was] like, ‘Listen, we love the spirit of Wondaland. You pick whatever you want to do, pick whatever songs. We just want it to be a day in the life of Wondaland,'” Monáe recalls. “What you saw is what we do on, like, a Tuesday. None of it was rehearsed. When it happened, it happened, and they were just there to catch it.”
It’s a Friday down in the Wondaland basement, and everyone seems amped and ready to put their money where their mouths are. When Nate Wonder queues up tracks from “The Electric Lady,” six or seven folks from the Wondaland party posse break out into an impromptu dance-a-thon, throwing down twists, hair flips and, where appropriate, the Pony. (One of Wondaland’s central tenets, and a lyric in “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is that “the booty don’t lie.”) The album title refers not to Hendrix–though she is an avowed fan–but to a concept birthed during her rigorous tour schedule.
“Over the last couple years, I would paint onstage, and I still do. I kept painting the same image of a woman, a woman’s physique, a woman’s silhouette. It would change every show. I felt like, ‘Why is this image recurring to me?'” Monáe says. “I realized that I was just drawing interesting women I would meet in my life. I have hundreds of those paintings, a figure of a woman. The name came to me as I was understanding the colors I was using, the things that made the paintings unique: Electric Lady. From doing the Nobel Peace Prize concert, to talking to women in Atlanta, to going back to my hometown, it was important to me that I highlighted a new type of 21st-century woman. It’s an overarching concept. What does the Electric Lady think about politics? How does the Electric Lady make love? What are her thoughts about sexuality? What are her thoughts about other women? How does she empower other women? What are her thoughts about other women? What is her position in life?”
The title track’s bass groove alludes to Sly & the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay,” and Monáe busts loose on the chorus with the most hopeful, beautiful wail: “Electric lady/In a waaaay/We can dance, we can love!” ve says she wrote the album from personal experience–the “Electric Lady” mission statement was to “tell universal stories in unforgettable ways”-and drew from conversations she had with her collaborators as well. Miguel guests on the gorgeous, glimmering “Primetime,” which interpolates the Pixies’ famous “Where Is My Mind?” “ooh” section atop a spare funk beat. It’s a love duet that builds on harmonies and the chorus–“Primetime for our love/Heaven is bettin’ on us”–and unites their glossy croons so well one can almost feel them melting into one another. Babies will be made and subsequently born to it.
And on another song she declines to name, Prince himself makes an appearance. “We are great friends, and he is a mentor to us, to me. It’s a beautiful thing to have a friend-someone who cares about your career, and wants to see you go far and to push boundaries and shake up the world–give whatever they possibly can to the cause,” Monáe says. “I had a chance to produce an icon. It’s not every day that he collaborates. I’m honored and humbled that he trusted me. He is forever my friend, and I am forever indebted. I can’t say too much else about it.”
Clarity of vision is why Prince and Monáe–and Badu and Monáe, for that matter–make a perfect match: iconoclastic, profoundly talented African-American performers whose viewpoints have advanced American pop music. If “The Electric Lady” is a step forward in sound and in scope, Chuck Lightning attributes its advanced style to spending the past few years kicking it with veterans like Prince.
“We’ve been blessed over these few years to have a lot of dialogue with our heroes. I mean, sitting around a piano with Stevie Wonder and talking about music, all of that’s in this album. The kinds of lessons you learn…like, Prince brought Quincy Jones to a show. And then having dinner together and listening to Quincy give us ‘How to Make ‘Thriller’ 101.’ We were very, very quiet.” Lightning says with a laugh. “It’s very important for the next generation, because hopefully someday we’ll be able to do that for them. And going very specifically into the ‘urban’ community, what passing on those lessons means for musicianship, the future and everything. When Janelle filled in for Aretha Franklin at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was a moment for all of us, because we understood what that meant. We realized the responsibility and said, ‘This is something special that we can actually do that.'”
It’s in this sentiment that Monáe s futurism looks to the past: She’s something of a musical preservationist, reimagining the music of her forebears for a utopian tomorrow. “I request that [Wondaland operations manager] Lord Kelli Andrews has her baby Arri here on certain days, because that’s my inspiration. I’m thinking about the next generation, about what kind of world should Arri grow up in. What does the baby want? What does the baby like? The baby wiggles her feet, that’s the song. When the baby cries, you better look at that baby,” she says with a laugh. “The Electric Lady,” adult or baby, commands attention.