Janelle Monae, 7", 2010
My friend Malik is a much cooler, quieter version of music fanatic than I am. His tastes are broader than mine, but his appetite is equally voracious. When he recommends something to me, I always check it out. Two weeks ago, he sent me the link for this video. And I'm ready to announce it as the single of the year. I don't care what comes out between now and December-- I think this song is the "Hey Ya" of 2010, a song so great and all-encompassing stylistically that it can't miss. I've listened to it at least 100 times in the past fifteen days, and there's no end in sight.
Janelle Monae is an Outkast protege, featured on the Idlewild Soundtrack. She's made one album of her own stuff which I thought showed talent but not a ton of focus. This song, however, announces her as a potentially major artist.
There are so many things that make this song work. Let's start with the vocal. In the age of pitch-corrected lead vocals with cloying, perfect harmonies, Janelle Monae is a throwback belter. She SINGS the hell out this song-- no tricks, just a great voice under complete control. I love the occasional background vocals-- they're cool and a little unsettling. The chorus are full-throated celebrations of a great melody and backing track. I've been involuntarily blurting out the chorus everywhere-- the gas station, in line at CVS, in the car. It's such an ear-worm that I woke up yesterday morning and had to put my iPod on so I could hear it again.
If all "Tightrope" offered was a catchy single, that would be one thing, but the backing track is one of the most compelling I've heard on a pop song in years. It almost sounds like a progression of pop music over its five minutes, with each verse taking us to the next decade's aesthetic principles. Sound like I'm reading too much into it? Bear with me:
The intro has the cliched announcement of the artists involved that was popular at the beginning of the decade, but then Janelle cuts him off with that great soul "Whoooooaaaaa!" When verse one kicks in, it sounds like a old school 60s soul single, all bass, drums, and handclaps. And these are not computers (or if they are, they're not meant to sound like them). That's a funky bass player with a rock-solid drummer, and Monae takes that one note harmony and cross-checks the rhythm all the way through the verse. In chorus one, a chicken-scratch funky guitar comes in, and now we're in the 70s. This could be an Earth Wind and Fire track for a second.
In verse two, everything falls out but the drums, and check out the difference in the kick drum-- now we're using old drum machine technology sounds, and it's the 80s, with voice and drums only, early rap style. In the second part of the verse, we get a film score horn section, and in the second chorus, they add a classic 70s string section to offer a counter melody. It sounds like a Bond movie theme for a few seconds. At this point, the song has used just about every dance track trick in the book, and we're at two minutes.
Then comes the rap break. And even here, it's all about progression: the first verse is very 80s, straight up and down rhythmically, and then in verse two, things become much more syncopated, and the delivery much more sophisticated. Like everything in this song, it's about establishing the baseline, and then pushing it forward. Brilliant.
In the third chorus, the drums fall away, and Monae alters the melody and shows her ability to improvise. It's a transcendent little moment, and could easily signal the end of the song. Instead, we're just getting started.
Around 2:50, Monae calls out the band, and they deliver, with a fabulous horn chart right out of a James Brown live set, and again, it's all about building and rebuilding. The last 90 seconds of the song are essentially instrumental, and feature ukeleles, a scratching DJ, floating strings, MC ad-libs, more horn melodies... it's sophisticated and complicated and packed with terrific ideas to the point where I can't believe it's a major label release, let alone a single. If this blows up like I think it will, it'll be the most musical, challenging hit single in years. Wow! There's hope for popular music after all, dammit!
Finally, how great is the dancing in the video? It's so exciting to see a young performer sell the song with talent rather than skin. I know it makes me sound like a prude and a grumpy old man, but I'm tired of our public droolings over our young celebrities. Janelle Monae seems completely in control of her image here, and that might be the most refreshing part of this tune. Yes, Big Boi had a lot to do with the track, and his cameo is completely successful, but it's her show here from start to finish. When she looks at the camera for the first time and starts singing, and those eyes explode, I feel like they're telling us to step back and give her room. With pleasure, ma'am.
The album, called The Archandroid, drops in May. It's a concept album about a futuristic city in which Janelle plays an alterego. I say bring it on. If it has a few songs even remotely this good, Janelle Monae's going to be the story of the year. Get in early so you can say, "Yeah, knew all about that."
Enjoy, and you're welcome. Though you should really thank Malik.
P.S. Line of the year so far: "We call that classy brass..."