This is a combination review of both Janelle Monáe and the Weeknd’s new albums.
Janelle Monáe and the Weeknd could’ve been separated at birth: The singer-artistes share a groove obsession and attitudes as cool as sweater weather. In some ways, nurture trumps nature: Monáe, 27, is a Kansas City soul princess who radiates love for her idols and stars in major ad campaigns, while the Weeknd, a.k.a. Toronto mysterioso Abel Tesfaye, 23, is a loner, brooding over romantic entanglements and largely avoiding the press. But both have peeled off from R&B-as-usual — and won rah-rah acclaim for it.
Monáe’s futurama 2010 debut, The ArchAndroid, was largely a solo trip, but for The Electric Lady, she’s scored guest spots from Prince, Erykah Badu, and esteemed pals like Miguel and Solange. And she invokes other significant names, including those of the first woman in space (”Sally Ride”) and the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (”Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”).
That’s a lot of history and ambition to allude to, and Monáe hasn’t given up the high-concept symbology of ArchAndroid, either. While the vibe’s heady, the music can drift into syrupy cabaret or oversoft funk. But she maintains her chill over skillet-hot tracks like the disco-rocking ”We Were Rock n’ Roll” and the jumping ”Dance Apocalyptic.” And the guests leave their marks: Prince roughs out the rawest groove, ”Givin Em What They Love,” while Solange lends the title track a ’90s tint — though it’s Monáe who raps, as if you need to be reminded of her many talents.
The Weeknd calls in a favor from just one person for Kiss Land, his first non-mixtape release: fellow Toronto native and early supporter Drake. In ”Live For,” Tesfaye describes a struggle to keep sober (not helped by clubgoers wanting a ”threesome, then some”) in his pained falsetto, as Drake dodges and vaults the beat. It’s not exactly a bro-down.
Tesfaye’s too ambivalent for that. He isolates himself inside long, slow-tempo songs that edge from seductive into oppressive — and, with their reverberating guitar chords and crisp, dominating drum sounds, will feel oddly familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed a 1980s ballad by Genesis. The lyrics, which he sings and raps, swing unpredictably from inviting to accusatory, and love’s only mooring seems to be money. ”This ain’t nothing to relate to,” Tesfaye insists on the dense, two-part title track. No, it’s alienation that verges on transcendence. B+
Kiss Land: B+
The Electric Lady: B