Purple Women: Janelle Monáe Extends & Maintains The 'Love'


'Purple Women' is a limited tribute series honoring the women who made music and history with Prince during his lifetime. To follow this series and check out the who's who of women on the roster, be sure to visit the introductory page for further information.  

The most important thing is to be true to yourself, but I also like danger. That's what's missing from pop music today. There's no excitement or mystery.

^ This was a comment that Prince made in an LA Times interview, circa 1982. In 2016, this comment wouldn't sound antiquated, in fact, it's a comment that probably a lot of us have uttered at one time or another depending on if you had a bad allergic reaction to the new releases section on Spotify or wondered why so many 'artists' are more famous for talking smack and snapping selfies via social media than they are for their music output.

Look, my nose is not turned up all the way when it comes to anything new. I'm also not trying to knock all of today's current crop of artists or belittle their efforts, but from my perspective, this new generation of mainstream music stars too often chase their influences, never developing past them, and do in fact dabble in all kinds of nonsensical bullshit. So when a death of someone like Prince, like David Bowie, like Whitney Houston, like Michael Jackson happens it begins to feel rather dystopian, and it puts the present in a high-definition bell jar, where every fine wrinkle and blemish is noted and reviled.

In making the rare comment on Twitter I voiced that I don't believe many new kids today are up to snuff to do a proper tribute to Prince. Not that there haven't been people who've tried and will try to be negligent and insert a tribute without warning (looking at you Trey Songz...), but it takes a special kind who can hone in and capture that purple glow and set it afire in kinship to Prince's aesthetic. There are particular names that come to mind when we're discussing disciples who worship at the Church of The Purple One, but the most astute disciple, in my mind, comes in the form of Miss Janelle Monáe.

I tend to get precious about Monáe because when she dropped her proper debut, 2010's The ArchAndroid, she dusted the cobwebs of commercial R&B aside, clearing space for a new generation of alternative sistas, and fine-tuning what has become "progressive R&B". Channeling her inner Grace Jones-meets-James Brown, Monáe fits Prince's 1982 observation to a tee: she was exciting, she was mysterious, and she was constantly attuned to being true to herself no matter what type of personal mutation she took. Taking risks is not a foreign concept to Monáe and The ArchAndroid was a severely ambitious and episodic affair that, listening back, takes some cues from the thematic approaches Prince made in his high-holy 1980s hey-day --- as far as references to God, activism, and astral bodies are concerned. Still Monáe is not photocopying Prince's playbook, more so rewrote a few passages to fit her own person and voila! an original act was born.

2013's The Electric Lady while also sprawling in its tracklist, quelled the sci-funk narrative and cosplay of ArchAndroid, and goes for a nostalgia run through. A somewhat 'letdown', The Electric Lady strutted with brisk abandon with eclectic surprises at every turn as funk and rockabilly meld on "Dance Apocalyptic", Samba swings on "Look Into My Eyes", and tabernacle deliverance rises out of an ska-island breeze for the grand finale of "What An Experience". Monáe, more potently, swaths herself in the smoke n' leisure of an legitimate jazz chanteuse, this alongside fellow unconventional sista, former jazz disciple, Esperanza Spalding for the haunting, "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes". This delve into jazz drew Prince to Monáe's friendly fire, as upon their first fateful meeting he complimented and admired her 'jazz voice', urging her to do it more.

Prince admired other aspects of Monáe, and such mutual admiration led the two of them to forge a friendship that flourished on hours-long jam sessions and mentorship. It's pretty spectacular that Monáe was able to turn an idol into a confidante, and then into a fellow collaborator as their platonic patronage extended towards their now lone studio collaboration, The Electric Lady's opening track, "Givin' 'Em What They Love".

The song can be written off a labor of love or a inclination of an elder passing the torch to a youngblood, but the track is more so a meeting of like minds. Monáe and Prince are both spitting razor-blades and switchblades atop a pounding bass-lined beat, unbossed and unbothered, standing up for their right to play the music they so desire. The song is like a creed: they both know they bad, but they were just checking in to solidify facts, you know, in case you were slumbering. They truly cook up a fuss and make for one hell of a duet.

What stands out to me is how Prince doesn't overtake Monáe. Even when he grinds gears to a scalp-searing guitar solo, he gives Monáe ample room to roll and razz, he doesn't steal thunder or overstep, it's ladies first always and that's something Prince, no matter his penchant for a side-eye or tart comment, was king at. With Monáe, Prince wasn't "Alexander Nevermind" or "Joey Coco" or a un-credited keyboarding specter (Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back") he was openly and simply Prince, elderstatesman, cool ass uncle, exchanging the funk lexicon with his friend (not protégé) in arms.


Though its The Electric Lady's biggest highlight and Prince's last prolific studio collaboration, "Givin' 'Em What They Love" won't be at the top of thought when we think of great Prince collaborations, and if Prince himself wasn't present it possibly wouldn't have been the event that it was, but it's a crafty entry, a funk-rock workout that bridges two generations flawlessly, but it's a cooperative that today brings up all kind of fan fiction. If circumstances hadn't detoured the way they did could Monáe and Prince have extended their conversation to more songs? Could there have been joint tours or duet albums in the future? One can dream the day away with such ruminations, but I like to think that Prince --- being so other-worldly and all --- would whisper a little guidance towards his former mentee every now and then (and let's hope his spirit is resurrected within Monáe when she gets lit on the 2016 BET Awards stage come this Sunday for the show's much-anticipated Prince tribute...).

But blessed with "Givin' 'Em What They Love" we are as it is a testament not just to how well two distinctive artists can work together, but how when you mix excitement, mystery and truth, a beautiful friendship can indeed flourish.

+ For all of the features in the 'Purple Women' series, please visit this source list.
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