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Janelle Monae
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Tracing the evolution of Janelle Monáe’s high-concept music videos

A deep dive into the future-forward artist’s conceptual journey from Afrofuturism and androids to an era of queer sexual freedom

Long before Beyoncé, Tove Lo, and Lana del Rey started releasing concept-based, extended-length visuals to accompany their albums, Janelle Monáe was creating “emotion pictures”: what she describes as “a narrative film and accompanying musical album”.

Over the past decade, Monáe’s name has become synonymous with a certain dystopian funk aesthetic that she created throughout The Metropolis Saga, her first emotion picture, which was told over the course of an EP and two full-length albums. It’s not yet clear if Dirty Computer, Monáe’s forthcoming third studio album, will continue the same sci-fi narrative of The Metropolis Saga, but from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like she’s using a similar style of high-concept fantasy to explore issues of politics, race, and sexuality.

Ahead of the album’s release, we’ve taken a close look at how Monáe’s visuals have evolved from her very first EP to her latest single “PYNK” – a video that spans Afrofuturism, cyborgs, science fiction, Sapphism, and of course, pants that look like vaginas. While each of the “eras” listed below shows Monáe focusing intently on an aspect of her aesthetic, they’re all broadly based on themes that she’s teased out across her entire oeuvre. She’s truly queen of the concept album – if not the concept career.

THE AFROFUTURISM ERA

Metropolis: The Chase Suite was Monáe’s first EP, and her introduction to the complex science fiction world she would expand throughout her subsequent albums, music videos, and conceptual artwork. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, Monáe’s Metropolis takes its inspiration from sci-fi genre touchstones like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the novels of Philip K. Dick. However, Monáe’s most important source of inspiration is Afrofuturism. “(Afrofuturism is) non-linear, fluid and feminist,” wrote Steven Thrasher for The Guardian. “It uses the black imagination to consider mysticism, metaphysics, identity, and liberation; and, despite offering black folks a way to see ourselves in a better future, Afrofuturism blends the future, the past and the present.” A decade before Black Panther established an Afrofuturistic aesthetic in the mainstream, Monáe was exploring African-American sci-fi dystopias in her music.

“Many Moons” was the lead single of Metropolis, and the only song to get a music video. The video is set in Metropolis at the annual android auction. The credits introduce a host of characters, including Master of the Show Drones (played by Monáe), and Cindi Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000 (also played by Monáe). Cindi Mayweather is the latest android prototype, and it’s her job to perform at the auction. “Many Moons” is our first introduction to Mayweather, who remains a recurring character in Monáe’s next two albums.

“Many Moons” established what would become Monáe’s signature Afrofuturistic aesthetic: an exploration of real world issues of race, class, gender, and politics in a sci-fi setting. “Civil rights, civil war / Hood rat, crack whore,’ Monáe sings. “Cybergirl, droid control / Get away now they trying to steal your soul.” The video ends with a Mayweather quote – “I imagined Many Moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom” – predicting that Many Moons and many worlds will be how Mayweather (Monáe) gains her freedom. These moons and worlds will be the various “emotion pictures” and Afrofuturistic aesthetics that Monáe will create throughout her career, in a quest for total creative and political freedom.

THE ANDROID ERA

Monáe’s first full-length LP, 2010’s The ArchAndroid, is a continuation of Metropolis’s world-building. While musically The ArchAndroid is an experimental hotpot of motown, funk, soul, and modern R&B, visually the album builds on Metropolis’s Afrofuturistic themes and aesthetics. On the album cover, Monáe wears a crown which, in The ArchAndroid’s album trailer, we see is the entire city of Metropolis sitting on her head. The ArchAndroid’s main plotline is that Cindi Mayweather (Monáe) realises that she is the ArchAndroid – a messiah figure who is supposed to save Metropolis.

The ArchAndroid’s biggest hit was “Tightrope”, a funk-fuelled song inspired by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The song’s video is set in ‘The Palace of Dogs: Asylum’, where dance has been prohibited due to ‘subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.’ In the video, Monáe leads residents on a dance through the asylum while cloaked, mirror-faced figures – a possible reference to classic surrealist short Meshes in the Afternoon – lurk as asylum guards. As in “Many Moons”, Monáe is in a monochromatic tux with her hair up – an androgynous, sharp look that “Tightrope” established as Monáe’s signature aesthetic.

“Cold War” stands out among Monáe’s videography as the first music video in her career that doesn’t feature her full body, dancing, or other people. The video is a one-take tight shot of Monáe’s face as she sings. It’s an emotionally intense video and Monáe’s most vulnerable. “Cold War”s framing of Monáe’s face is a throwback to Sinéad O'Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” video, which sees O’Connor sing the Prince-penned song directly into the camera. While “Cold War” doesn’t display any of Monáe’s typical Metropolis world-building, the recording timer in the right hand corner indicates that we’re still in her sci-fi dystopia. Both the song’s lyrics about resistance and rebellion (“I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me”) and Monáe-as-Mayweather’s emotional expression alludes to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff Test, which checks if a person is actually a replicant – the film’s version of an android.

THE POSTHUMANIST FEMINIST ERA

Monae returned to The Metropolis Saga with her second full-length LP, The Electric Lady, in 2013. The album’s cover harkens back to the “Many Moons”s video, with Monáe shown as multiple androids. Monáe’s decision to present her performing “self”, Cindi Mayweather, as an android, taps into debates in posthumanist feminism. In her 1984 essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway presented a thesis that the cyborg – “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’; a ‘creature in a post-gender world” – is how equality will be gained. Monáe’s android persona, Cindi Mayweather, is Haraway’s cyborg, a posthuman, genderless creature that has a fluid existence that doesn’t rely on boundaries or limitations.

In the music video for “Q.U.E.E.N.”, Monáe and her label Wondaland, have been frozen in time in a museum showing rebels throughout history. Young women in Metropolis’s timeline free the 21st century Monáe by playing her song. We see Monae dancing in her signature monochromatic colours as she sings about acceptance: “Will your God accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I'm made? / Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?” “Q.U.E.E.N.” directly references Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (“Will you be electric sheep? / Electric ladies, will you sleep?”) as Monáe uses music and dance as a political tool for rebellion.

“Electric Lady” stands out as Monáe’s most conventional music video, and one of the few from her Metropolis era that isn’t in a sci-fi setting. Monáe and her friends head to a sorority house party, where we see her dancing joyfully. However, at the end of “Electric Lady”, the lighting changes dramatically to purples and blues – a queer visual aesthetic known as ‘bixsexual lighting’ due to the blue, pink, and purple colours of the bisexual flag. While Monáe doesn’t directly explore sexuality in “Electric Lady”, she returns to bisexual lighting five years later in “Make Me Feel”.

THE CYBER FANTASY ERA

“Venus Fly” is the first collaboration between Grimes and Monáe. In the video, Monáe’s Afrofuturism meets Grimes’ cybergoth aesthetic as the two women wear cutting-edge couture and extreme otherworldly cosmetics. “Venus Fly” is an evolution from Monáe’s previous videos from world-building sci-fi to high-concept colourful fantasy, and marks a shift from Monáe’s Metropolis era to 2018’s Dirty Computer.

THE SEXUAL FREEDOM ERA

After a five-year break from releasing music, Monáe returned earlier this year with the release of two singles, “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane”, from her forthcoming third full-length album, Dirty Computer. So far, Monáe hasn’t commented if Dirty Computer is an extension of The Metropolis Saga or a new ‘emotion picture’, however, the striking visuals from the album’s music videos indicate that this album is a new era for Monáe.   

The 80s and Prince-inspired “Make Me Feel” is a celebration of sexual freedom and bisexuality. We see Monáe and actress Tessa Thompson (Monáe’s rumoured girlfriend) enter a club, where they see another version of Monáe. Whereas the first Monáe is in her classic Metropolis era monochrome outfit, the new Monáe is sporting a blonde wig and dressed in vibrant colours. “Make Me Feel” returns to bisexual lighting, but pushes it to the extreme, as Monáe and the club are bathed in purples and blues as Monáe runs between Thompson and a man, dancing, grinding, and contorting her body. This is also the first music video where Monáe plays the guitar – a nod to her mentor and collaborator Prince.

In “Django Jane”, Monáe is dressed in her signature suits – however, as in “Make Me Feel”, instead of her usual monochrome colour scheme, she’s wearing rich reds and greens. The video is a return to Monáe’s Afrofuturism, however, she’s no longer in Metropolis. Instead of her earlier video’s shiny chrome sci-fi settings, “Django Jane’s” surroundings complement her new colourful suits with warm tones. Dressed like an African king, Monáe sits on a throne and spits out rap verse after rap verse: “Remember when they used to say I looked to man-ish/Black girl magic, y’ll can’t stand it.”

On “Django Jane”, Monáe instructed, “Hit the mute button let the vagina have a monologue,” and on “PYNK,” her latest single and second collaboration with Grimes, she makes good on her promise.  

“PYNK” is Monáe’s only video set entirely outside, and features her and a group of black women drenched in pink lighting as Monáe sings about “PYNK” – aka vaginas – and dances in labia trousers. “PYNK” is a queering of Pussy Power empowerment, as Monáe emphasises an intersectional celebration of womanhood; she wrote on Facebook, “(no matter if you have a vagina or not)”, and notably, some of her dancers are not wearing the vagina pants. Directed by Emma Westenberg, who describes her aesthetic as “soft cinematic soothing instrumental futuristic coool,” PYNK is a queer femme anthem. Colourful Sapphic images associated with femininity are spliced between sequences of Monáe and the women joyfully dancing: a grapefruit half resembling a vagina, lipstick, tongues, soft bellies, and petals.

From “Many Moons” to “PYNK,” Monáe has proven herself to be a chameleon of form, creating ‘emotion pictures’ with high-concept ideas inspired by Afrofuturism and science fiction, and using those aesthetics to explore questions of sexuality, race, and gender. With only three singles, Monáe has established different aesthetics with each accompanying video that she has dropped in 2018. Dirty Computer looks to be her most experimental and intriguing ‘emotion picture’ yet.

Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is out April 27

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