At the Atlanta headquarters of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society, a giant turkey has been roasting slowly for hours, and cups of something called Wondapunch are being passed around. From the front, the place looks like any other home in the surrounding suburban McMansion development, which is otherwise populated by middle-aged and elderly professional types. But inside, Monáe and her team of collaborators have worked to cultivate a hidden artistic oasis.
The living room is carpeted with grass and adorned with a long bench swinging on ropes from the ceiling. In one bathroom is an issue of Vogue with Michelle Obama on the cover—Monáe performed at one of the President’s fundraisers last year—and the hot tub on the deck out back is overflowing with iridescent blue bubbles and topped with a sprinkling of flower petals. There’s an area filled with single-person-sized teepees for people to crawl into and just… think. The house is decked out for creative purposes in a highly studied way, as if someone has been reading up on Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota, or Jack White’s Third Man Headquarters in Nashville. Monáe has another home to herself in the Atlanta area, but she sleeps, eats, and breathes Wondaland when she’s in work mode.
And in play mode, too. The entire place has been soundproofed for nights like tonight, when the music goes above what the neighbors would consider a polite volume. Monáe and her crew—which includes the production duo Deep Cotton, aka Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, designated “experience architect” Azza Gallab, and a number of others—have invited a few dozen friends to preview songs from her sophomore album, The Electric Lady. And they want to get everyone dancing.
Over the past several months, the team has been workshopping the album to get a sense of how the human body might respond to it. At one point, they brought early versions of tracks to Atlanta’s fabled strip clubs to see what the women there could dance to—a somewhat surprising move considering Monáe’s android-obsessed subject matter is light years away from the champagne room. Even during her kinetic live performances, there’s still an air of controlled chaos to the proceedings, never a pivot out of place. But with The Electric Lady, she’s aiming to move from a cerebral place—Monáe is often found deep inside her own head—to a more physical one.
The goal is achieved, at least for the night. These are Monáe’s friends, of course, so they’re a bit biased, but everyone here is gyrating and twirling and shimmying and twisting and strutting so elastically that even limber onlookers could feel like awkward lumps by comparison. Even Monáe’s demure-by-day personal assistant has found her own spotlight on the dancefloor. The scene looks like it could go on forever, but eventually the playlist ends and people start to disperse, bellies full and limbs loose. Monáe has a giant turkey leg dangling from her mouth. She’s pleased.
The following afternoon, the 27-year-old is back to work, rehearsing for a performance of “Q.U.E.E.N.”, her Electric Lady duet with Erykah Badu, at this year’s BET Awards. She has to cram because her appearance on the show was booked at the last minute, only after Prince himself phoned BET President of Programming Stephen Hill directly and demanded Monáe be added to the lineup. Hill placed her as the closing act. Prince, who makes a rare guest appearance on the new album, has been a supporter since Monáe’s debut Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP in 2007: After her first show in L.A., he circled the venue in his car and asked her to hop in when she came outside. Monáe is someone who inspires this kind of loyalty from fellow artists. Especially fellow secret-headquarters types: In June, Star Wars mastermind George Lucas flew Monáe out to his Skywalker Ranch in California to give an intimate performance on the property.
But even with untouchable power players in her corner, Monáe’s position in the music industry at the moment is a curious one. On one hand, she’s got Prince making the case that she should be on stage at the biggest annual televised celebration of black music. On the other hand, she kind of needs Prince to make the case that she should be on stage at the biggest annual televised celebration of black music. It is sometimes easier to like the idea of her—a whirling, twirling, fantastical funk robot in a tux, a firecracker of a live performer, a young woman who runs her own tight creative ship—than it is to forge a natural connection with her music and persona. With The Electric Lady, she has a chance to change that.
Before the rehearsals, Monáe and company are sitting around with iPads in Wondaland’s basement recording studio, reeling off a whirlwind of tasks. (Someone has what looks like a Gmail account pulled up on a large computer monitor, but there’s a “W” where the “G” should be. The team uses WondaMail.) Most of the effort is currently going into the editing of a minute-and-a half promotional teaser for The Electric Lady. They fiddle with the length of the clip in increments of seconds.
“It’s too long! Don’t give all that away, they need to wait until the album,” Monáe protests, in reference to a new track being used in the background of the teaser, which pictures her perched on a couch, explaining the concept of the new album: “The Electric Lady was inspired by paintings. Every night I would perform, I would paint on a canvas while I would sing… this image of a female body, a silhouette, every single night.” The soliloquy sounds familiar—the night before, she’d stood in the middle of the party and addressed her friends with the same speech, but with an extra little nugget of information. “I came up with the title in therapy, actually,” she blurted out, seemingly by accident.
Therapy, she tells me, has become an important part of her life since the release of her debut album, 2010′s The ArchAndroid. “It was like I had a computer virus in my brain and it needed to be fixed,” she says.
“I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first,” she continues. “In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible. There’s a stigma.” Monáe, who grew up in a devout Christian family, still says grace before meals. “But I think God blesses us with brains to find medicine, to find cures, and I don’t believe in not using that. Therapists are there to listen.” She also talks about grappling with a split from a boyfriend in between albums, offering a rare revelation about her love life (she’s been known to tell interviewers that she dates cyborgs). “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she says, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”
Sometimes the struggle to regulate her own controlling impulses can wind up breeding different sorts of controlling impulses. At the teaser meeting, and at other points during our time together, she’s constantly walking that line. After a long deliberation over the length of the video, the crew decides to split the difference. “Let’s move on,” Monáe concedes. She’s perched quietly in the corner, slouched over her white iPhone 5 with furrowed brows, appearing distracted but piping up decisively at key moments to offer the final word on the topics at hand.
Later on, Chuck and Nate lead me into a small guest room to screen a rough cut of the video for the slyly doomsaying single “Dance Apocalyptic”, which finds Monáe shedding her standard tuxedo getup for an all-white ensemble and loose hair. There are a couple of stray wine glasses in the room, and the bed is unmade. Monáe, they confess, might be upset if she knew I was in here—she wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see the mess.
Monáe’s inner disciplinarian is a voice that’s propelled her forward since the earliest stages of her career. She grew up in working-class Kansas City with her mother, stepfather, and sister. The family lived check-to-check on a janitor’s wage, but her mother provided her with fierce emotional support. “She would buy me talent show outfits,” Monáe says. “And when I didn’t win, she would get up like Kanye and be mad, like, ‘My baby shoulda won!’ She’s very proud.” Monáe addresses her mother directly on the Electric Lady cut “Ghetto Woman”, a confessional electro-funk tune that speaks to the image of working-class black women in American culture: “Carry on, ghetto woman, even when the news portrays you less than you could be.”
After high school, Monáe worked alongside her mother as a maid to save up enough money to attend conservatory in New York City before relocating to Atlanta. There, she mapped out a unique grassroots plan to infiltrate the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the hub that unites four of the country’s biggest and most storied black colleges. She wasn’t enrolled in classes at the time, but she figured that she could earn traction in the music industry by developing a fanbase among the students. It was a shrewd act of forethought—AUC is an important component of the music industry in Atlanta, one of the few cities in America where a thriving local scene feeds directly into the pulsing jugular of mainstream recognition.
When Monáe returns to the AUC grounds in late June, it breathes with the eerie quiet of summer vacation, save the sounds of new trap-rap darlings Migos’ “Hannah Montana” rattling out of the boombox of a lone student on a bench. She walks past buildings where she performed as part of her “dorm lounge tours,” back when she sang with just an acoustic guitar. “I wasn’t into inorganic things in music,” she explains. “I didn’t like what R&B was and I didn’t like what I heard on the radio.” She still takes issue with mainstream R&B, but her own music made a sharp turn when she crossed paths with like-minded artists Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, who were attending Morehouse College at the time. “There was something about them having these big ideas,” Monáe says. “I’d never met black people who were so serious and so creative, people who wanted to start a revolution and redefine music.”
Monáe seems categorically drawn to these kinds of Big Thinkers. Everyone involved in Wondaland is a student of high concepts, of capital letters: Art, Music, Science, Ideas. During our time together, she mentions fashion godhead Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she’s personally bonded over a shared love of the black-and-white tuxedo. She and her producers talk at length about futurist Ray Kurzweil’s theory of technological singularity and make reference to a recent visit to the David Bowie exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. When Monáe had her first meeting with her label Atlantic Records’ marketing team, she handed out copies of The Big Moo, Seth Godin’s collection of essays espousing wisdom on marketing. She talks about Steve Jobs and Apple’s branding strategies. She likes the word “visionaries.” It’s all very wide-eyed and rooted in her relationship with Chuck and Nate, who helped her ramp up her sound while sticking to her creative scruples.
In turn, the producing pair were entranced by Monáe’s sphinxlike on-campus reputation and her laser-sharp focus on her art. “She did one show where she told everyone to drop out of school,” remembers Nate, shaking his head and grinning. “She was like, ‘Y’all might not even need to be in school! You’re wasting your parents’ money. You need to go out and find what makes you passionate!’” Though she wasn’t even technically a student, she “ran the school,” according to Chuck. Walking alongside the petite Monáe—not more than 5’2″ and wearing a black-and-white checkered blazer, fitted black slacks, suspenders, patent-leather flats, and Prada sunglasses—it’s not hard to imagine her days as an elusive and eccentric character on campus.
At the time, she was working a job at Office Depot, where she’d routinely use the store’s computers to update her Myspace page and correspond with fans—a move that would eventually lead to her firing. But the song she wrote in the wake of her exit from the store, “Letting Go”, would make its way to the ears of Big Boi, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to a friendship and artistic kinship with OutKast, the rap duo that helped inspire Monáe’s move to Atlanta. Soon after, Diddy would hear Monáe’s “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” on Myspace and use the Big Boi connection to reach out to her about a deal with his own Bad Boy Records. His motivation? “He was like, ‘I’m at the point in my career where I want to be known for putting out something creative,’” Monáe recalls.
It might sound like a dream scenario for a young artist trying to gain a foothold, but Monáe met Diddy’s interest with skepticism. “I didn’t trust labels,” she says. “I thought they’d immediately try to change my image, change my style, make me relax my hair.” So she first put him on the phone with her lawyer and then suggested he set aside a taping of his reality show “Making of the Band” to fly down to Atlanta for a release party for her Metropolis EP. He obliged, providing Monáe with satisfactory paperwork, and the wheels began to turn toward an “artistic partnership”—not a traditional deal—between Wondaland and Bad Boy. The major stipulations were that Monáe and her collective would retain full control over their music and brand. “Diddy is very afraid to mess it up,” Monáe says. “And he should be.”
Monáe’s rep as a tuxedo-rocking, cyborg-loving, retro-futuristic bundle of funk and fantasy is a big calling card—one that she’s worked very hard at bringing to life. She manages her image rigorously. Throughout our time together, I often feel like she’s speaking to me from a script, reflexively keeping emotional distance between us. She is, after all, known for penning her musical sci-fi tales from the perspective of an android alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather. “I’m an alien from outer space,” she sings on “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”. “I’m a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind.” But she grows animated and sincere when we talk about how she developed her look and why she refuses to stray from it.
Assembled during her time at AUC, her styling is partly in homage to her parents, whose work required uniforms. “I thought, ‘What would I think if I saw somebody wearing this?’” she says. “I would think they were sick as hell.” She hates the pictures floating around the internet that were taken before she honed her getup and gets emotionally and physically riled up just thinking about it. “Get rid of all those photos,” she says. “I don’t like the clutter, I don’t like the colors.” Her liveliness lightens the mood; Monáe’s interpersonal wall begins to break down when we talk about how the wall was built.
The Monáe concept is also an outlet for the perfectionism she’s been battling against. “I think I have OCD,” she says, sitting in Atlantic’s midtown Manhattan offices in July. “I really don’t like that and I’m working on the balance of knowing that some things are just beyond your control and you’ve got to be in the moment and roll with the punches.” The Electric Lady has her channeling an array of demons, both big and small, in a more explicit way.
There’s still the veneer created by her alter-egos, the costumes, the theatrical interludes, but she’s a bit softer and more exposed. She’s almost unrecognizable on “Primetime”, a bare ballad she recorded with Miguel, or on “What an Experience”, the album’s swooning closer. She cites both Miguel and Solange Knowles, who also appears on the record, as artists who are working to bring R&B to new places, too. It’s surprising to even hear her use the term R&B, given the ways she’s characterized the genre in past conversations. “Somewhere along the way, R&B got lost—gatekeepers have recycled sounds and not kept up, musicianship has declined,“ she says. ”I really did want to make one of the greatest R&B albums of this year, but I want to innovate as well.”
Still, The Electric Lady reflects the growing pains of an artist trying to reconcile a handful of goals. The final version is more than twice as long as what was played back at the Wondaland party, and some of it can feel dogged by an excessively ornamental air. Monáe can sound chilly even when singing her most emotionally bare lyrics.
The album’s confusion is heightened considering the sense that it is Monáe’s boldest bid for pop superstardom to date. “Last time [with The ArchAndroid], I was really focused on the performance, and I didn’t want to do radio,” she says. “This time, I said, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ I believe in these songs even if they don’t make it on the radio, but why not try?” When we meet at Atlantic, she’s mapping out a month-long promotional radio tour that’ll have her paying visits to local stations in the hopes that “Q.U.E.E.N.” will land on the airwaves. (As of press time, none of the three tracks released from The Electric Lady have cracked Billboard’s Hot 100.)
So while her ambitions are intact, Monáe is loathe to admit that she’ll do anything to sacrifice an ounce of her vision to attain them. “We’re focused on getting great music on the radio,” she explains, and again I can almost sense her referring back to her inner script. But she also knows, subconsciously, that good things happen when she’s forced to put the script away. She recalls her tumultuous recent performance at Essence Festival in New Orleans, where she had a minor sinus infection and lost her voice two hours before going on stage. “I was so proud of myself, because the old me would have been over it,” she says. “The audience got the most raw Janelle Monáe ever, because they saw me adapting.”
TO GO: Monae comes to Miami November 23, 8pm. $33.50 – $48.50. Fillmore, 1700 Washington Ave; Miami Beach. For info: fillmoremb.com