BARRY COURTER: With help from Big Boi and Sean Combs, Janelle Monáe has created one of the most unusual concept albums to come along in a long time.
Start with a futuristic science-fiction concept involving robots, throw in a tuxedo-wearing singer who channels everyone from James Brown to Etta James to Nona Hendrix to P. Funk, and you get just an inkling of how all over the galaxy "ArchAndroid" is.
Strings, funk, hip-hop, trippy rock, disco, jazz, a little folk and synthno-pop are all here, and it works, primarily because Monáe can sing.
CASEY PHILLIPS: This is an early front-runner for my favorite album of the year. I'm a sucker for well-executed concept albums. Writing songs is hard enough, but to unify them around a story arc is a feat that's rarely attempted and even more seldom pulled off. "ArchAndroid" joins a very exclusive club among landmark releases like The Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" as one that gets it right in the best kind of way.
Monáe's story arc follows Cindi Mayweather, an android from 1,000 years in the future who travels back in time to escape persecution heaped on her kind. She falls in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, and begins a campaign to free her people from emotional oppression. The concept is inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film "Metropolis," which is also the name of the EP that precedes "ArchAndroid" and serves as the first quarter of the Mayweather story arc ("ArchAndroid" includes suites II and III).
Not every track is a hit - I wasn't a fan of "Sir Greendown" - but there's literally something here for every musical taste.
BARRY: The real greatness in this CD is the trip it takes you on. It's like a musical history lesson and a really good "Star Trek" episode rolled into one. It feels familiar and futuristic at the same time.
I have a lot of favorite moments on the CD, but "Wondaland" is by far my favorite song. It just makes me smile. I hit the repeat button at least once every time I hear it.
CASEY: This is not an album to listen to passively, though you can certainly appreciate it for its eclectic grandeur and phenomenal production without paying the story a bit of attention. To truly appreciate what she's accomplished, however, I advise at least one uninterrupted play-through with lyrics at hand, lest you miss references to everything from "Logan's Run" ("Locked Inside") and Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep" ("Make the Bus") to Buddhist philosophy ("Say You'll Go").
BARRY: This is easily one of my favorite new albums of the last couple of years.
CASEY: Absolutely. Monáe exhibits an incredibly vivid imagination and depth of creative intent that is exceedingly rare. This album is rife with beautiful, deep, deliberate music, and I can't recommend it highly enough.