Janelle Monae's Funky Otherworldly Sounds Singer, songwriter and performer Janelle Monae earned a Grammy nomination for her 2007 album Metropolis, and caught the eye of Sean "Diddy" Combs, who signed her to his Bad Boy roster.

Janelle Monae's Funky Otherworldly Sounds

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105491960/105493606" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I want to introduce you to a young singer and songwriter who I recently heard for the first time. Her name is Janelle Monae and her music reminds me of the eclectic hip hop group Outkast. I guess that's no surprise, considering the group's co-founder, Antwan Big Boi Patten co-executive produced Monae's new CD, "Metropolis: The Chase Suite." Judi Rosen wrote in "Rolling Stone," Monae has been called the female Outkast with reason. She has a skill for pulling off extravagant fashion statements and genre-defying musical tastes.

Janelle Monae's new CD is jointly released by her own record label and Sean Combs' label, Bad Boy. Her original ambition was to be on Broadway. And as you'll hear, her music is pretty theatrical. Several of the songs on the CD are about her fictional creation, android Cindi Mayweather, who lives in the year 2719. This track is called, "Violet Stars Happy Hunting."

Ms. JANELLE MONAE: (as Cindi Mayweather) (Singing) I'm an alien from outer space (outer space). I'm a cybergirl without a face, a heart or a mind.

(I'm a product of the metal, the product of metal; I'm a product of the man) Ci ci ci. I'm a savior without a race (without a face). On the run cause they hit our ways and chase all my kind. They've come to destroy me. They've come to destroy me. And I think to myself (Impossible, it's impossible for me) Wait, it's impossible. Now they're running from me and they run for you. Or running too. Oh, and all the sirens go dooodooo. The sirens go dooodoooodooo. Dooodooooo. Ohhh baby ooh you know the rules. I love you and I won't take no for an answer. They say that Violet Stars was such a freak (such a freak) When you're all in lost in love...

GROSS: That's my guest, Janelle Monae from her new album, "Metropolis." Janelle Monae, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like your music. Now what we're hearing is a very theatrical production and it's all about a character. You have this whole like cyborg fantasy. You have this whole futuristic fantasy that's enacted on your album. And in your videos you're wearing customs and, I mean it's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …it's theater. And, in fact, you're ideal was to be in theater. You wanted to be in Broadway musicals and before ending up in Atlanta, where you live now, you went to New York after high school to study music there and hoped to get on to Broadway. Why was Broadway your first ambition?

Ms. MONAE: Well, I've always loved, you know, music and theater. So the first thing was to combine those two. But in high school I was heavily involved in musical theater productions and it was a time where I felt most free on stage. I really did have lots of ideas in my own mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MONAE: I had lots of musical theater ideas myself and I wanted to connect with other people who I thought were similar to me. There are times when I'll just be in Walgreen's or the doctor's office or somewhere, you know, normal, in a natural environment and I'd just break out into song and come up with characters and go home and write about it. And so I wanted to meet others like myself so I didn't feel so odd or weird. I wanted to interpret art and music the way that I saw it in my own mind.

GROSS: Now I want to play another track from your new CD, "Metropolis."

Ms. MONAE: Sure.

GROSS: And this is called "Sincerely Jane." And this isn't about being in outer space. This is about being in the inner city, where there's problems with crack and gangbanging. And is there a story behind writing this song?

Ms. MONAE: Well, it was a letter written to me from my mother. I had left, you know, Kansas. I grew up in Wyandotte County, one of the poorest county's in Kansas. And, you know, at an early age, I was exposed to those, you know, around me who had gone to really dark places in their lives because of drugs. One of the lines that I've written - are we really living, or just walking dead? And that's just a question that I've asked myself, and I've challenged people in my life to ask themselves, too. Because there's a big difference, of course.

You know, so a song can change your life. And I was - I've always hoped that whoever listened to that tune, they were able to really self evaluate and figure out a way to live. And so, yeah, the lyrics are pretty self explanatory, but they come from a true experience and a place that my mom, you know, told me to just stay away, you know, because this is what's going on in your neighborhood. So…

GROSS: One more thing before we hear "Sincerely Jane" - the arrangement on this is fantastic. There's, like, French horns and timpani.

Ms. MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: Can you talk about the arrangement and why you wanted something this big behind you?

Ms. MONAE: Sure. Well, I've always had a deep admiration for the orchestra. And I visit here in Atlanta, as often as I possibly can, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. You know, we've been a huge supporter, too, of James Bond and Shirley Bassey. She's one of my favorite vocalists. And what we wanted to do, we wanted to make the French horn cry because, you know, the letter was so touching. And I wanted people, when they listen to it, to actually hear those French horns crying and those strings, you know, pleading, you know. And with my voice, I wanted it to touch the corners of their heart.

GROSS: Okay. Well, let's hear it. This is "Sincerely Jane" from Janelle Monae's new CD, "Metropolis."

(Soundbite of song, "Sincerely Jane")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Left the city, mama, she said don't come back home. These kids round killing each other, they lost their minds, they gone. They quitting school, making babies and can barely read. Some gone on to their fall. Lord have mercy on them. One, two, three, four, your cousin's here 'round here selling dope, while they daddy, your uncle, is walking round, strung out. Babies with babies, and they just keep burning, while their dreams go down the drain now.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) While their dreams go down the drain now.

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Are we really living or just walking dead now?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Are we walking dead now?

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Or dreaming of the hopes riding the wings of angels? The way we live, the way we die - what a tragedy. I'm so terrified. Daydreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more. Love don't make no sense, ask your neighbor. The winds have changed, it seems that they've abandoned us. The truth hurts, and so does yesterday. What good is love if it burns bright, explodes in flames? I thought every living thing had love, but are we really living or just walking dead now?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Are we walking dead now?

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Or dreaming of the hopes riding the wings of angels?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) The way we live, the way we die.

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) What a tragedy.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'm so terrified.

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Daydreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more. I've seen them shooting up funerals in their Sunday clothes, just been spending money on spinners, but won't pay college funds. And all you gangers and bangers, rolling dice and taking lives in a smoky dark,

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Lord have mercy on them.

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Teacher, teacher, please reach those girls in them videos.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Live your life.

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Those little girl are broke, and queen's confusing bling for soul. Danger, there's danger when you take off your clothes. All your dreams go down the drain, girl.

GROSS: That's Janelle Monae from her new CD "Metropolis." So how did you actually get out from your neighborhood in Kansas City to study in New York? Did you get a scholarship?

Ms. MONAE: Yeah, I did. I did. I got a really cool scholarship for the American Musical and Dramatics Academy. And it was the only school I had applied to. So, I mean, I was really, like, okay. Hopefully this works, you know, this would be my golden ticket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MONAE: And to make it into that program, you know, was really a defining moment for my life. And my life really depended on that moment.

GROSS: Did you have an audition? And if so, what did you sing for the audition?

Ms. MONAE: Wow. I did. I had an audition. And I sang - what did I sing? I was, I wanted to say I was Cinderella in the production in my high school. And so there was a song called "In My Own Little Corner," which I really connected to emotionally for some strange reason. But yeah, it was from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." And I've always loved them to. You know, they gave me my first real connection with strings…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MONAE: …because of the songs, the tunes they would compose. That's when I first fell in love with strings, was when I was in that production.

GROSS: Can you sing a few bars of that song?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MONAE: Ah, I think it was…

(Singing) In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be. On the wing of my fancy, I can fly anywhere, and the world will open its arms to me.

So, yeah.

GROSS: Well I can see why you related to that. That sounds exactly like the story you've been telling us about your life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MONAE: Yeah, it's really, really true.

GROSS: My guest is Janelle Monae. Her new CD is called "Metropolis: The Chase Suite." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Janelle Monae, a young singer whose original ambition was to be on Broadway. Now she's singing eclectic, sci-fi influenced hip-hop. Her new CD, "Metropolis: The Chase Suite," is a co-production of Sean Combs' Bad Boy record label. Now, I want to play another song, and this is from an album that you released - I don't know if it was on your own label or what, but it was before your new album. And it's called, "Janelle Monae: The Audition." And this track is called "Cindi." And it sounds a little like the story you're telling us, about somebody who wants to sing and who wants to be a star and doesn't really find a place for herself.

Ms. MONAE: "Cindi" is a song that's just about appreciating oneself. There was a point in time in my life where I searched and - even when I got into the recording industry, there was a way that people, you know, tried to get me to go because it was most safe and conventional. And I've always had a burning fire heart like, you know, James Brown, and I would know that. And I knew that, you know, my gift isn't and was not going to be easy, you know, to just - for people to accept, which is fine. And I had to come to grips with that.

So, in writing "Cindi," I just talked about that journey, that small journey in which I pondered and I really, you know, toyed with the idea of blending in. But at the end of the day, you know, that wasn't going to work out.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. And this is from Janelle Monae's first album, a self-released CD called, "The Audition." And this is "Cindi."

(Soundbite of song, "Cindi")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) As I search for a home and a place to belong, I find it hard to fit in. I meet lots of pretty girls in this fantasy world waiting for their turn to shine. So I try to be Cindi, in hopes that they'd notice, but I wasn't their cup of tea. It's so lonely when I'm only being me.

GROSS: That's "Cindi" from Janelle Monae's first self-released CD called "The Audition." And her new CD, which is a collaboration between her label and Sean Combs record label is called, "Metropolis."

Now, as we can hear, you have a voice that really could have made it on Broadway. Like, you have a beautiful, you know, legit-sounding voice. But what you're singing now is - in a beautiful voice - is like your own breed of hip-hop. Did you feel like you had to change your voice in any way to - when you changed your aspirations from Broadway to hip-hop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MONAE: Well, you know, no, I actually didn't. You know, I don't really categorize anything that I do or say all - you know, this is the genre that I'm trying to go into. And, you know, still to this day, I don't have a name for necessarily what I call my sound or what it is that we're doing. It's one of those things where, you know, I don't have - I don't force anything. And by nature, I think that I've always been drawn to women like Judy Garland, who always kept a very classic and timeless voice - even Anita Baker at times. I love her voice, as well. So, you know, taking those out would just be taking a part of me away.

GROSS: Janelle Monae, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MONAE: Oh, thank you again, Terry. It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Janelle Monae's new CD is called "Metropolis: The Chase Suite." You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.