How do you rate an artist of ambition? It's a harder question than you think. As (forgive me) a critic, I find myself in a position of wanting to reward and encourage ambition, while needing to look at the product I'm holding in hand. I need to judge the music for what it is, not for what it represents.
If it were all about the intent, Janelle Monáe's debut would certainly earn an A+ for effort. The ArchAndroid is over an hour of music, spanning a large number of genres. There's high-wire funk, tight-grooved R&B, a pop ballad (The Carpenters with a drum machine, and, yes, it's just as awesome as that sounds), and then there's the latter third.
We're dealing with a compound album here, consisting of two separate bits. There's no relation, musically, between the first two thirds and the final third. The first bits are indebted to James Brown and George Clinton. The last third features an Of Montreal song. Not a song that sounds like Of Montreal, but an actual song written and recorded by Kevin Barnes, the man responsible for Of Montreal. I'm still trying to figure out what it's doing here. Briefly, I thought it was a mistake. If you're at all familiar with Of Montreal's queazy art-pop, that will give you a vague, slightly mistaken idea of how this album goes out.
Whether or not The ArchAndroid works is a good question. It certainly never fails to, but the album only takes off sporadically. "Come Alive (War of the Roses)," "Tightrope," "Cold War," and "Oh, Maker" are phenomenal. The rest of the album is consistent, and promises great things in the future. The reviews I'd read earlier of this album left me confused, as it didn't seem terribly genre-spanning, up until the change over into Suite III which marks the final third. There are two albums by two different artists here, or, at least, a single artist separated properly by a good twenty years. The music does me fine, but the ambition blows me away.