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New CD reviews: Janelle Monae, 2 Chainz

  • September 16, 2013 - 3:16 PM

POP/ROCK

Janelle Monae, “The Electric Lady” (Atlantic)

In a modern pop music landscape in which the single is king and hit-making producers are mostly free agents spreading their sound through vessel vocalists, Monae and her Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society stand out.

On Monae’s grandiose new album, “The Electric Lady,” Wondaland’s creativity is on full display. A continuation of a seven-part series that Monae and company introduced in 2007, the singer and a great mix of guests (Prince, Miguel, Solange, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding) again travel a fictional landscape.

Monae rolls through the album like fellow conceptualists David Bowie and George Clinton cloned into the body of a droid — one nicknamed the Electric Lady No. 1. It’s an impressive feat, thematically, and the kind of creative chance that too few high-profile artists are willing to take.

Musically, however, “The Electric Lady” lacks a center, as though Monae sacrificed sonic vision in favor of her narrative. As expansive and meandering as a concept album by Yes, Monae’s talent seems diluted by variety. It’s hard to tell where the human is. One minute she’s pushing quiet storm R&B (“It’s Code,”) the next she and her band are doing lounge music (“Suite V: Electric Overture”).

Excellent moments dot the record. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” featuring Spalding, is a trippy, jazz-fused ballad. The more traditional “PrimeTime” features Monae teaming with Miguel for a steady love song. Though long and featuring a bounty of ideas, “The Electric Lady” is surprisingly slight.

Monae performs Oct. 22 at the Skyway Theater in Minneapolis.

Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times

HIP-HOP

2 Chainz, “B.O.A.T.S. II: #Metime” (Def Jam)

The cover art for 2 Chainz’s second album explains a lot. The two Cuban links — thick, gleaming, and drenched in symbolism and literalism — aren’t drastically different from the necklaces that made his debut so self-explanatory. But they answer two questions about his new material before you ever hear it: Can a rapper who makes a living off being outlandishly funny and absurdly simple keep topping himself? Yes. Will he veer dramatically from the formula? No —2 Chainz’s fixations are the same: money, women , clothes, drugs and lots of trap beats.

Still, things come off more polished. Whether it’s his horn-laced lead single, “Feds Watching,” with Pharrell or the warped, taunting “Where U Been” manufactured by Mike Will Made It, he knows what hits sound like. And the only fingerprint mentor Kanye West left was the cover art. The advice he gave 2 Chainz was that with a bottomless well of charisma, it was time to stand on his own, and he’s right.

Julian Benbow, Boston Globe

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