Janelle Monáe’s long-awaited debut album opens with the sounds of an orchestra tuning and some polite applause, then a sharp jab of strings, the rise of an ominous choir and flittering woodwinds. If you’re sitting in front of the computer you just bought the record on, dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, you might feel underdressed.
And rightly so: The ArchAndroid is a fully immersive, theatrical experience. It’s a near-perfect R&B album; hell, it’s a fantastic hip-hop, psychedelic, neo-soul, dance and orchestral album too. It’s hard to classify but harder to ignore, matching Monáe’s massive stylistic scope and ambition with endless melodies, can’t-help-but-smile jams and an all-star cast of guest artists, including Big Boi, Saul Williams, Deep Cotton and Of Montreal. The 18-track epic brings to mind Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life; its stunning, sophisticated tunes spanning styles, speeds and sentiments, all tied together by a smorgasbord of artistic personalities.