Janelle Monáe: Cyborg Diva, Black Girl Nerd, Marketing Genius

On the occasion of the release of her sophomore album, it's worth taking a look at the power of this Kansas City black girl's brand.

By Jamilah King Sep 10, 2013

Janelle Monáe doesn’t have to make music. In truth, she could stick to interviews in which she talks about dating boys and cyborgs, the ones that mention how every black weirdo’s favorite musicians — Erykah Badu, Outkast, Prince — has her on their playlists. That alone is enough to keep building her allure as the charismatic and funky modern music diva.

But Janelle Monáe does make music, and she’s very good at her job. Now, with the release of her sophomore album "The Electric Lady," it’s worth taking a look at just what that job entails in today’s landscape of popular music, and the particular way in which Monáe has crafted a brand out of trying to be every black girl nerd’s favorite black girl nerd. She’s not Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, two artists that have been embraced by black women because of the confessional nature of their music. Whereas their art deals with the everyday realities of black womanhood, Monáe’s subject matter is often otherworldly. It makes for inspired, if at times redundant, music. But it is a brand unlike any other in pop culture.

No matter what your generational preferences, it’s hard to argue against the fact that today’s crop of young black musicians is imaginative. I’ve heard Beyoncé concerts described as life-changing experiences. Rihanna’s music — as formulaic as it may be — has cemented her place as one of the best selling R&B acts of all time. There’s Kendrick Lamar who, before releasing his platinum-selling ode to ‘hood survival, dropped a six-minute track about cartoons and cereal. And of course there are the standard bearers of modern-day black funk: Badu and Outkast.

What sets Monáe apart is, of course, her talent and her unapologetic embrace of blackness and womanhood. But it’s also her commitment to the image that she’s crafted around those identities. She’s unrelenting in her approach to metaphor as music. As she croons on "Violet Starts Happy Hunting": "I’m an alien from outer space/I’m a cybergirl without a face, heart, or a mind." 

Two full-length albums later, she’s still a cybergirl — Cindi Mayweather, to be exact — fighting her way through apocalyptic doom to a world where she can love and dance freely. Consider this the often upbeat soundtrack to Octavia Butler’s catalogue of work.

To listen to Monáe explain her art, what’s clear is just how aware she is that she does have a face, heart, and a mind, and they’re formed distinctively by her roots in a working class black family in Kansas City, Kan., where she grew up with her mother, stepfather and sister. In a track from her new album called "Ghetto Woman," she sings a beautiful tribute to the black women who raised her: "Before the tuxedos and black and white everyday/ I used to watch my mama get down on her knees and pray./ She’s the reason that I’m even writing this song/ Now ghetto woman it won’t be long."

It’s moments like this, where Monáe is direct and raw, that are the album’s strongest. The new work is filled with guest appearances by artists whose presence scream difference: Prince, Badu, Solange Knowles and Esperanza Spaulding. It’s a good album but at times it feels as if they’re on a ride of futuristic blackness that’s leaving the rest of us behind. With great albums, the artist takes you along with them. Jody Rosen had it right in New York Magazine when he wrote: "The rococo embellishments, the "electric overtures" (there are two of them here), the grandiose thematic overlay: It all feels like a reach, an attempt to jump a rocket ship to Planet Genius."

Monáe admits that she’s a student of marketing which, on its face, can give the impression that her whole act is contrived. And, in some key ways, it is. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, the singer admitted that she hates seeing pictures of herself online before she adopted her signature pompadour-and-tuxedo look. "I don’t like the clutter, I don’t like the colors," she said. That’s image control, albeit for the benevolent reason of paying homage to her hometown roots, in which her blue collar family had to wear uniforms to work.

When you take the videos, interviews, and albums as a whole, the music itself feels like a modern day mixtape created by the Combahee River Collective and marketed by Steve Jobs.

But where Monáe truly succeeds is by serving a demographic that she knows well: herself–and every other black girl nursing a broken heart and the sometimes painful realization that she’s not normal. It’s selfish, as all art tends to be in the end, but it’s serving an overlooked demographic, and it works.