Does it break some sort of music-criticism decorum to insist that you buy an album when I don’t, technically, understand what the holy hell’s going on with it? Screw it. If I wait until I know enough to explain it, I doubt I’ll be able to recommend its 20th anniversary reissue in high-fidelity-brainstem-injection. A little over an hour, 18 tracks arranged in two suites, each with its own Technicolor overture — there’s a lot going on here, and no three minutes of music sound alike. Take your pick: Shondellic psychedelia (“Mushrooms and Roses”), Bond-worthy lounge jazz (“BaBopBye Ya”), 808-infused folk (“Oh Maker,” “57821”), fun with backmasking (“Neon Gumbo”), Disney-esque post-coital New Wave rave-ups (“Wondaland”), post-Radiohead prog-pop with a James Brown twist (“Come Alive (War of the Roses”)), and — as you might expect from an album that bears Puffy’s Bad Boy imprint — plenty of hip-hop and rhythm and blues (the “r&b” abbreviation seems inaccurate, considering the only contemporary reference point is Solange Knowles). But it’s not even that simple, because unlike your average genre-hopper, Monáe fully integrates these styles, letting them bleed into each other until you don’t know what’s what. She’s not without predecessors, of course, it’s just that, unlike too many artists today, Monáe has a whole bunch of them. “Make the Bus,” featuring Of Montreal, sounds exactly like, well, Of Montreal, but it’s probably their best since Hissing Fauna. “Neon Valley Street” owes an obvious debt to Aquemini, but don’t we all? (Speaking of Outkast, if “Tightrope” — Monáe’s duet with Big Boi — isn’t a runaway crossover hit, the world is wrong.) You could probably chart most of her influences, but you’d end up with one of those webs spiders make after they’ve taken LSD.
Add to that ArchAndroid’s complex concept. The album tells part two and three of the saga begun on Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Monáe’s debut EP. Judging by what I understood of the first chapter, the story is: (a) a self-aware-android tale complex enough to put Styx to shame, and (b) bonko-bugshit. The fact that this doesn’t stop the songs from resonating emotionally suggests that Monáe is some kind of unstoppable robot from the future herself, in her own words “something like a Terminator.” If Monáe — a supermodel-pretty sci-fi nerd with a superhuman musical sensibility — is the face of Skynet, humanity is done for. And I don’t care.
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