For a long time I've thought that the most hip-hop thing about Mary J. Blige's landmark 1992 album What's the 411? wasn't the at-the-time-unheard incorporation of boom-bap breaks into a sung R&B context, but Blige's cover Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing." A 21-year-old with a flat voice, a honking tone, and less than half of Chaka Kahn's range covering a classic displayed more bravado than anything else on the record. It was gutsy, raw, arrogant perhaps to the point of delusion, and it worked—for many, Blige's is the definitive version of that track, despite her vocal limitations. What that song lacks in technique, it makes up for in stunning self-assuredness.
Janelle Monáe, whose second album, Electric Lady, is out today, has a much sweeter, more elastic voice than Blige (think Jody Watley or En Vogue's Cindy Herron, or, occasionally, a prepubescent Michael Jackson), and unlike Blige at the time of What's the 411?, Monáe has been known and adored for years. But Monáe has the same kind of self-confidence that Blige had, and demonstrates it on Lady the same way Blige did on "Sweet Thing"—through showing, not telling. For many reasons, which include but are not limited to hip-hop's deluge of bragging, and the proliferation of expressive outlets via social networking, speaking highly of oneself isn't just socially acceptable today, but often necessary to distinguish your voice from the din of others'. Monáe does this but in a highly sophisticated manner. She is among the best at telling us that she is the best.
She manages this primarily by co-opting, and giving her spin on, specific artists' musical styles. There are no covers on Lady, but "Victory" is a lost song from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, if ever there were. We get Monae's takes on Stevie Wonder circa Innervisions ("Ghetto Woman" is most reminiscent of "Golden Lady"), the Jackson 5 ("It's Code"), and Jam & Lewis 808 balladry ("What an Experience"). There are more general references to Bond themes in "Look Into My Eyes," rockabilly (meets "Bandz a Make Her Dance" meets "1999") in "Dance Apocalyptic," new jack swing (meets go-go) in "Electric Lady." And Prince, of course, not just when he appears on Lady's "Givin Em What They Love," but also in "Q.U.E.E.N.," and her duet with Miguel, "PrimeTime," which is sort of a halfway point between "Purple Rain" and "Adore." Monáe riffs on this stuff because she can. It immediately situates her amongst greats; her songwriting and delivery justify her positioning.
If only all expressions of self-love were as enjoyable and accomplished as The Electric Lady. Monáe's confidence can be thrilling—especially live, and particularly when she's dancing on David Letterman's desk. There is no room for modesty within her aesthetic, and that's OK. Her charm sells it, her darling status reinforces it (she openly labels two titans of culture, Prince and George Lucas, her "fans" in this Vulture interview), her sense of social justice compels it. "Carry on, ghetto woman…even in your darkest hours, I still see your light," she sings. Her confident persona is based in part on being the change she wishes to see in the world.
Given how referential The Electric Lady is, seemingly as a huge part of its point, I was surprised to read this quote from Pitchfork's recent feature on her: "Somewhere along the way, R&B got lost—gatekeepers have recycled sounds and not kept up, musicianship has declined…I really did want to make one of the greatest R&B albums of this year, but I want to innovate as well." No pastiche has been quite like The Electric Lady, yes, and some tracks are more on the evocation side of things than those that invoke outright, but it's surprising that innovation is a goal of someone who plays so gleefully with retroism. Maybe next time, she'll get there. With her attitude, anything is possible.
[Image via Getty]