It’s rare to see a musician follow through on a series of concept albums. To create one collection of songs with a narrative throughline is hard enough, but to commit to laying that story out over a course of years, even through changes in artistic direction and style, is incredibly difficult. Such an attempt requires an incredible amount of forethought, creative control, and time, which does not necessarily suit the modern day process of music production.
One young musician has managed to not only accomplish this, but in a manner that has led to Grammy nominations, collaborations with artists such as Prince and Erykah Badu, and increasingly higher placements on the Billboard charts. By the age of 27, Janelle Monáe has already released three albums full of playful, gorgeous songs ready for the dance floor, with a dramatic sci-fi epic about freedom, class, and acceptance laced throughout the background. This strategy has allowed listeners to enjoy her music whichever way they please, without having to sacrifice either listenability or content.
This story is titled Metropolis, purposefully bringing to mind the classic 1927 film Metropolis, from which Monáe pulled a number of elements. Both involve a female messianic figure in a futuristic city struggling with class divide. Monáe is represented by an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an indentured android who becomes aware of the unfairness she and her fellow robots suffer at the hands of the ruling humans.
Her self-understanding comes to a head when she is marked for disassembly after falling in love with a human, and discovers while on the run that she is the fated savior, foretold to free the androids from their secondary citizenship and unite the two races. She returns to Metropolis a few years later as the Electric Lady, ready to save the city and humanity throughout time from The Great Divide, a secret society that is using time-travel to suppress freedom and love even in our era.
Monáe is using science fiction in the best way possible: to comment on cultural and political issues we are dealing with today. The androids can easily represent many of the Others of our society, but they are most overtly a representation of LGBT citizens and people of color. Monáe also often sings of working class struggles; in regards to her signature tuxedo outfit, she said,
“I don’t make music for kings or queens, I make music for regular people. I wear my black and white uniform to pay homage to those who are working every single day like my mother and father…I represent the working class and I try to create songs that are uplifting because this world can drive you insane, which is why I try to create songs like ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Cold War’. To give them inspiration on how to deal with balance and how to realize your strengths.”
How has Monáe managed to tell a futuristic messiah epic in such a short period of time? Let’s first examine the main platform.
It would have been far easier to put out rock opera-style albums with very literal narrative as the lyrics than what Monáe has managed to do. Songs can be easily bogged down with the weight of story, rendering them interesting but lacking in heart. Monáe made sure her music was emotionally engaging and relatable, while still leaving narrative clues throughout.
Each album was written to cover one to two “suites” of the larger Metropolis epic. The first release, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), introduces the listener to Cindi’s story with a radio announcement that excitedly calls for her disassembly for loving a human. It is our first introduction to the world and its rules, and is therefore quite detailed:
Good morning, cy-boys and cyber-girls!
I am happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes
Android Number 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather
Has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown
And you know the rules!
She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly
Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District on the 4th floor at the Leopard Plaza Apartment Complex
The Droid Control Marshals are full of fun rules today
No phasers, only chain-saws and electro-daggers!
Remember, only card carrying hunters can join our chase today
And as usual, there will be no reward until her cyber-soul is turned into the Star Commission
From there on out, the lyrics become less direct and more poetic, but the listener can easily trace Cindi’s journey with a basic knowledge of the underlying story. The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) follows Cindi as she deliberates over her true love for Sir Greendown and her increasing recognition of the need to save the city. Lyrics hint at her savior nature (“It’s your time/Lead us all back to one/You’re the one”) and her growing confidence (“I can make a change/I can start a fire”). She ultimately chooses to leave the city to become the hero it needs and keep her lover safe.
She returns in Monáe’s latest album The Electric Lady (Suites IV and V), with the android community waiting and ready for her to lead them. The interlude “Good Morning Midnight” features an android DJ taking calls from listeners, and ultimately warning fellow robots to not use violence, protesting instead through love, dance, and inclusion, in keeping with the Electric Lady’s pacifist message.
Woah, woah, woah! That’s that ignorant rusty-dusty nano-thinking nonsense I been warning y’all about. Please stay away from fools like that. Love not war, we are tired of the fires, quiet no riots, we are jamming, dancing, and loving. Don’t throw no rock, don’t break no glass, just shake your ass. Ooo, just shock it shake it baby with the Electric Lady. Here at 105.5 WDRD
From a thematic standpoint, Monáe drops breadcrumbs of references for the listener to discover. She is open about her influences and wants to share them with the world. She ties the freeing of the androids to that of the black experience in the United States, with references to Harriet Tubman and John Henry, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. Monáe also makes call outs to specific science fiction properties, such as Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and, indirectly, its film adaptation, Blade Runner.
However, understanding she shouldn’t overload the albums with the story’s mythology, Monáe turned to her music videos to help flesh out the narrative.
Of the six official music videos she’s created, roughly half expand on the storyworld. Her first, “Many Moons,” is the most directly set in Metropolis, with Cindi performing for the crowd during the city’s annual android auction.
The video cleverly hints at a number of details about the city and its power structure. We are introduced to a selection of residents, including a local crime lord, the master of police, and a tech industry leader. We also learn about different android models (who all look like Monáe), their services, and their subsequent values.
In “Q.U.E.E.N.,” we are shown Metropolis’ Ministry of Droids’ use of time travel to squash rebels in different eras, including Janelle Monáe and her art collective, Wondaland Arts Society.
According to the exhibit, Monáe and collaborator Erykah Badu created Project Q.U.E.E.N., “a musical weapons program of the 21st Century.” This video helps make clear that Janelle, and not just her alter ego, is directly related to Metropolis. Further readings reveal she is actually from the future, had her genes copied to create all of the androids, and was then sent back in time to our era. Seeing as she can’t directly reference her real self in the music, the video is a great way to expound on this.
Her most recent video, “PrimeTime,” features Cindi in her younger years, becoming frustrated with her servitude and meeting her first love, Joey Vice, played by collaborator Miguel.
This prequel lets us see Cindi pre-messiah, as a mere waitress at the Electric Sheep nightclub, where other female androids pole dance for customers. The poor working conditions are part of what spur her eventual quest to put androids on equal footing.
These types of details, and the general atmos one can portray in a video, helps build out the world and the larger story in a way that is either impossible through the music or would ultimately damage the songs with too much exposition. Understanding the strengths of each medium and which parts of the story are best told where is an essential aspect of any world building, but especially when involving music.
Visuals besides music videos can be just as helpful at establishing the look and feel of the world, its tone, and its characters. Monáe has put a great amount of thought into the album artwork. All three major releases have featured her as one (or more) of the android models. Suite I and ArchAndroid both focus on Cindi, the first with her body partially disassembled. But ArchAndroid is where she most directly pays homage to the film Metropolis, mimicking its famous poster with a city-like crown on the soon-to-be-messiah’s head. Sketches of the track listing art indicate other references to the film’s own android, such as replicating its overlapping plate structure.
For the latest album, Monáe commissioned artist Sam Spratt for the cover art. In an interview with Pitchfork, Spratt listed off his influences for the piece, which are in keeping with Monáe’s own themes and reference points: “Afrofuturism, Androids, uniformity, Mod sorority, a little Prince, a little Donna Summer, a little MJ, a bit of Egypt, a hint of punk, and some cheesy 80s sci-fi.”
A blog post revealed that the “painting” is titled “Concerning Cindi and Her Sisters and the Skull of Night Thrashings.” An elaborate history of the illustration and Cindi can be read here, which begins with:
This painting, which hangs in the Royal Black House in the aspect of Metropolis known as New Atlantis, is called simply Cindi Mayweather And Her Sisters Cast A Spell Over the Good City of Metropolis. Painted in the autumn of 2717 by the Good Citizen Samuel Spratt, the painting features the Alpha Platinum android superstar Cindi Mayweather and her Five Sisters. Clockwise from left to right: Andromeda, Andy Pisces, Catalina, Morovia, Polly Whynot, and in the front and center, Cindi Mayweather.
An alternate cover has also surfaced, with an equally detailed history that includes the revelation of the existence of legendary robotic dragons called Drogons, that were built during World War C. The painting is titled, “Concerning Cindi and the Glow of the Drogon’s Eyes.”
Monáe even had a pamphlet called “The Ten Droid Commandments” printed and distributed at concerts, telling attendees to “Believe in The ArchAndroid” and to “abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture, and gravity.” Click through to read all ten.
Monáe has clearly put much thought and care into the story she has created and offered to the world. Understanding the limits of music and strategically placing narrative has made it fun for fans to track down, but not a requirement for them to simply enjoy the songs as they are. Letting listeners choose their own level of engagement shows an understanding that people can appreciate the art in different ways.
Mentions of other ancillary content have been made throughout the years, including a graphic novel, a video for every track on ArchAndroid, and even a Broadway musical, but none of these have come to light. While this kind of sci-fi epic could be explored in any number of ways, two possibilities sprung to mind immediately:
1. Similar to Björk’s Biophilia, an accompanying app or app album would work wonders for the next (and last!) two suites of Metropolis. A different app per song could help flesh out the narrative aspect of each track, allowing the user to connect to the music in a new way. Or, an interactive, encyclopedic-like app could be released alongside the last album, collecting and presenting all of the story into one place, with a chronology, city map, political structure, and other details hinted at throughout the music.
2. A social media presence for Cindi Mayweather. As the leader of an uprising, it would make sense that Cindi would be utilizing digital networks in order to spread her message to the masses. This could work whether she exists in our present time or in the future. Cindi could be communicating with her fellow future robots, sending out cryptic clues through Twitter and posting subversive art to Tumblr. If she somehow managed to get messages to humanity of today or even time travel, her warnings to us directly would also work in such realms, even allowing her to interact with fans on Facebook, answering questions and asking for their help. Because of the futuristic setting and her own electronic nature, conversing across social and digital media works perfectly for her character.
These two suggestions could be as simple or expansive as resources would allow for. Given Monáe’s work thus far on her previous releases, I am hopeful that the final installment of Metropolis holds much for eager fans who have followed Cindi’s journey until now.