The OutKast-affiliated Dungeon Family, arguably the crew that established Southern hip-hop as a creative and commercial force, is a locus for imaginative artists bent on self-exploration. So it made sense that Janelle Monae, a young and ambitious singer from Wyandotte County, Kansas, would find her way to OutKast's Big Boi in Atlanta.
"I met Big Boi [when] I was singing backup for Scar," says Monae, referring to the other highly touted singer in the Purple Ribbon camp. Later, a standout solo performance of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" at P. Diddy's soul food restaurant, Justin's, prompted Big Boi to track her down. "Immediately after' felt someone grab my arm," she remembers. "He was like, 'I really believe in you. I think we should talk.'"
Monae signed with Big Boi's Purple Ribbon imprint, and debuted on the label's 2005 compilation Got Purp? Vol. 2. A subsequent spotlight on OutKast's ill-fated Idlewild project, where she swung with an easy jazz syncopation on "Call the Law," stoked anticipation for Monae's upcoming solo endeavors.
But even the keenest futurist couldn't predict the utter weirdness of Monae's Metropolis project. Inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent-era classic, a German Expressionist-styled meditation on the Industrial era, the album stars Monae as Cindy Mayweather, a woman who travels to the future and consorts with androids, underground workers, and evil capitalists. "I'm an alien from outer space/I'm a cyber girl without a face, a heart, or a mind," she sings on "Violet Stars/Happy Hunting!," a bounce cut ridged with guitars that evokes a harder, funkier version of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" On "Cybertronic Purgatory" she sings a wordless aria over acoustic guitars, then returns to Earth for "Sincerely, Jane," a pop critique of urban malaise.
Monae conceived the project with Wondaland Productions, a fledgling musical collective that, like her, landed its first major credit on the Idlewild soundtrack. "It pulls from some of the story in Metropolis, but it's a world of its own," says Monae of her album. "We've taken it far out. It's way further than the original."
Unusually, Monae's soulful Metropolis will be released as four EP-length "suites." The first will be Metropolis Suite I of IV: The Chase, with a new chapter landing every two or three months.
"We decided to take the symphony approach. [Classical symphonies] play a suite or two, and then you clap, and then you have intermission, and then you come back," explains Monae. "I always thought the reason why did that is [for the audience] to process what they've just heard and not overwhelm them."