Singer. Songwriter. Actress. Visionary. Janelle Monáe is so many things, it’s easy to forget she’s also a producer, working alongside her closest collaborators to furnish her own sound. In this piece, we’re looking at how Monáe’s secret weapon – her production prowess – factors into her distinctive sound.
Though she’s been active in the music industry since as early as 2004, it’s been eight years since Janelle Monáe burst into the mainstream with her debut LP. In that time she’s issued three studio albums, all to nigh-universal acclaim, collaborating alongside her musical idols whilst flexing her now-substantial acting chops. Through her continuing mastery of music, film and fame itself, Monáe remains one of the more dynamic and exciting artists of the decade.
Her major-label breakout, 2010’s The ArchAndroid, was brimming with the kind of boundary-pushing soul one would expect from a devout disciple of Prince. She followed it up with her sophomore album, 2013’s The Electric Lady, which brought more high-concept, genre-blending goodness. This year brought forth her much awaited third effort, Dirty Computer, a collection of empowering anthems and timely reflections on identity and belonging in an abrasive era. Unifying all her albums is a central theme of love: whether it’s for someone else or the self, Monáe’s worldview prioritises earnest affection and love for one another as her endgame.
Growing up, the Kansas-born artist dreamt of a world “like anime and Broadway, where music fell from the sky and anything could happen.”
Janelle Monáe’s Production Chronology
Janelle Monáe quietly entered the mainstream back in 2007, when she released Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). It kickstarted the story of Cindi Mayweather, a Christ-like android on the run from an oppressive government in a dystopian future. Monáe was credited with production across the entire seven-track offering, alongside collaborators Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder.
Prior to her ambitious conceptual debut, Monáe had produced for OutKast. Her co-production credit on Idlewild cut “Call The Law,” on which she also featured, remains the only time she’s produced for another artist. Interestingly, Big Boi bridges Monáe’s ascension to the mainstream: she came to note on OutKast’s Idlewild, he contributed to her breakthrough EP and the pair would later collaborate on “Tightrope,” the crowing single from her debut album, which the Atlanta rapper helped release alongside Bad Boy mastermind Diddy.
The ArchAndroid, Monáe’s first studio LP, continued exploring the conceptual groundwork laid by her acclaimed 2007 EP. The LP contained Suite II and III of her afrofuturistic odyssey, thematically inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, an early example of science fiction cinema and perhaps the most striking piece of cinematic retrofuturism. Musically, the album incorporated elements from a wide variety of genres including soul, gospel, synthpop, new wave, folk and rock, the impressive breadth of these influences testament to Monáe’s ability to draw from a wide range of materials. It’s no surprise that an album as intricately assembled features significant production from Monáe herself: she contributed production to all but four tracks, having a hand in 77% of the project.
This number proved to be prophetic: Monáe garnered production credits on 14 of the 19 tracks on 2013’s The Electric Lady, which represented a slightly lower rate of 74%. 11 of these were full credits, whilst three (“PrimeTime,” “It’s Code” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”) were for co-production. Otherwise, Monáe remained indispensible in all aspects of the album’s composition: at one point, she took early versions of the tracks to legendary Atlanta strip clubs to observe the dancers’ reactions.
A similar showing on the more condensed Dirty Computer – 10 of 14 tracks, or 71% – brings her overall self-produced percentage to 74.5%. Interestingly, Dirty Computer features the lowest number of full-fledged credits for Monáe: of her 10 nods, 7 are for co-production, 2 for additional production and just one – interlude “Stevie’s Dream” – for full production. Even that track, which runs just under 50 seconds, boasted three production credits. In a time when albums are cobbled together in a matter of weeks, Monáe’s meticulously considered approach is a stand against the modern demands placed on artists.
One of Monáe’s most interesting production quirks is her faith in collaborators. This should come as no surprise, seeing as she’s helmed her own label, Wondaland Records. That imprint, founded in 2015, was an almost inevitable continuation of the Wondaland Arts Society, a creative collective Monáe assembled between 2001 and 2002. Whilst she’s tallied up a more-than-respectable amount of credits in her own catalogue, Monáe’s never produced a track without assistance.
Her most frequent collaborators include Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, better known as Deep Cotton, a funk duo signed to Wondaland. Wonder is the older brother of another frequent Monáe offsider, Roman GianArthur, who’s contributed to all of Monáe’s projects, most notably accumulating 14 production credits on Electric Lady. In fact, it was with these three artists that Monáe produced the entirety of her sophomore LP.
Though Monáe exists as a truly visionary musical auteur, her sound is complemented by the talent surrounding her: a network of experienced, personally compatible musicians with whom she can exchange ideas, cut takes and revise drafts. Key to this kind of collaboration is trust.
Prince’s Legacy in Janelle Monáe’s Music
Though Monáe is largely enigmatic in regards to her artistic process, she wears her inspirations on her sleeve. Her single greatest influence is Prince, an artist she’s fortunate enough to count as both a hero and a collaborator: the pair linked up on The Electric Lady cut “Givin Em What They Love,” and Prince contributed instrumentation to her suitably funky 2018 single, “Make Me Feel.” Their artistic relationship, however, goes far beyond shared credits.
I wouldn’t be as comfortable with who I am if it had not been for Prince. I mean, my label Wondaland would not exist without Paisley Park coming before us.” – Janelle Monáe (2018)
Unlike Monáe, who benefitted from the online accessibility of the information age, Prince had to battle to establish Paisley Park: it was only after Purple Rain that he had the social capital to justify his own label and studio. Nonetheless, the Purple One’s well-documented artistic community – one teeming with acts and artists within his orbit – provided a model for Monáe’s own label, which functions more as a tight knit collective than a strictly business-oriented imprint.
I would watch his videos and his eyes and I would just be like, ‘Who is that spirit?’ I had never seen a black man perform or express himself in the way that Prince did. He didn’t allow people to put him in a box or try to force him to be more masculine or more feminine.” – Janelle Monáe (2018)
Monáe’s own artistic image has taken cues from this very idea: her subtly radical suit-and-tie garb of the ArchAndroid era challenged gender norms, itself just one example of the empowering feminism she’s incorporated into tracks like “Ghetto Woman,” “Pynk,” “Django Jane” and “Q.U.E.E.N..”
Unlike Monáe, however, Prince almost always helmed his own production. The entirety of Purple Rain was credited to Prince & The Revolution, whilst 1988’s Sign o’ The Times was the work of Prince alone. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that Prince actually enlisted an in-house producer to assist with his records: Joshua Welton (a nephew of the great Count Basie) co-produced both 2014’s ARTOFFICIALAGE and 2015’s HITnRUN Phase One, also contributing to 2014’s PLECTRUMELECTRUM. Prince selected his new producer in a way only he would: a funky tournament.
Nonetheless, growing close to the late legend was a double-edged sword: she built an intimate rapport with the nigh-mythological muso, a fact which helped her develop her sound and aesthetic further, but it only amplified the sense of loss on his tragic, premature death in 2016. “I just never could imagine a time where I couldn’t pick up the phone or email him, and he’d contact me right back and we’d talk about all these things that I was unsure of,” she told NYTimes earlier this year.
Prince’s greatest impact, however, wasn’t on the music itself as much as the philosophy underpinning it: in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Monáe remembered Prince as existing in the “free motherfucker category.” She prefaced the comment with a note of Prince’s aversion to swearing – a testament to the Purple One’s startling duality – but explained just how he embodies the phrase. “That’s the category when we can recognise in each other that you’re also a free motherfucker. Whether we curse or not, we see other free motherfuckers. David Bowie! A free motherfucker. I feel their spirit, I feel their energy. They were able to evolve. You felt that freedom in them.”
Indeed, freedom has long been a staple of Monáe’s collaborative vision: she sources her producers and songwriters from within her own roster, promoting internally instead of outsourcing credits. The existence of Wondaland itself, which dates back to long before Monáe even broke onto the scene, is further proof of her commitment to creative fidelity. The label didn’t arise from Monáe’s own successes: Monáe’s successes arose from the label itself, a force indispensible in her ascension. Despite this, the versatile artist doesn’t count herself amongst those free motherfuckers just yet: “that’s where I want to be,” she later told NYTimes. “That’s where I want to ultimately be.”
The South Has Something To Say: Outkast & Janelle Monáe
Just as Prince was casting off the contractually shackled bonds of his name up in the frosty Midwest, a formidable duo were making theirs in the then-maligned Atlanta hip hop scene. André Benjamin and Antwan Patton were an odd couple, and as their careers continued, their tastes would become more and more divergent: Benjamin would become a full-fledged Prince devotee, whilst Patton would become one of the Dirty South’s most respected and revered emcees. Yet, as OutKast, Andre 3000 and Big Boi helped put one of contemporary hip hop’s most creatively vibrant regions on the map.
Though Patton has had a successful solo career as Big Boi, he counts his two foremost signees as his biggest achievements: Killer Mike and Janelle.
My journey is still continuing, but [Big Boi] was one of the first people I met who wanted to help me get there, and he did. He and Andre 3000 are big supporters of me, and they wanted me to be on the Outkast album. I was leaving my job at the time, and I wrote a song called “Let Me Go” and he heard it and put it out. I’ll forever be thankful for him. He’s like a big brother and somebody who definitely helped my career blossom.” – Janelle Monáe (2011)
Monáe’s approach to production mirrors that of OutKast: like the ArchAndroid herself, Dre and Big Boi entrusted their production to an exclusive group of collaborators. Their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, was helmed by Atlanta trio Organized Noize, which comprised of Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade and Ray Murray. The influential Southern tastemakers worked on TLC’s “Waterfalls” before reuniting with OutKast on 1996’s ATLiens, which boasted some production from OutKast themselves. Nonetheless, Organized Noise still produced 10 of the 15 album tracks.
The group were far less involved in the production of Aquemini, which was largely handled by Andre and Big Boi themselves. They still produced four album tracks – single “Skew It on the Bar-B” and album tracks “Return of the ‘G’,” “West Savannah” and “Mamacita.” Newcomer Mr. DJ produced three tracks, all by himself: “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” and “(Pt. 2),” and “Y’all Scared.”
There are some clear parallels between Monáe and her idols. Whilst Monáe’s first three records were helmed by a tight knit team of four major producers, OutKast managed with just three separate production crews. OutKast brought their collaborators on board as their success allowed them to diversify, whereas Monáe’s lowkey industry involvement in the years prior to The ArchAndroid allowed her to debut with a stacked roster. This breakdown below makes it a little clearer:
Furthermore, like Monáe, OutKast retain their producers across a number of projects and iterations. Though Organized Noize contributed less to their later records, group member Sleepy Brown was featured on late standout cuts such as “SpottieOttieDopalicious,” “Stankonia (Stanklove)” and “The Way You Move.” In the lead up to 2000’s Stankonia, Mr. DJ united with OutKast themselves under the banner of Earthtone III: that production trio was credited on all but three tracks.
Monáe referenced that album as a key influence on her 2010 debut:
I mean, in terms of influence it encompasses all the things I love – scores for films like Goldfinger mixed with albums like Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, along with experimental hip hop stuff like Outkast’s Stankonia.”
In keeping with his close collaborative spirit, Big Boi operates his own record label. Purple Ribbon Records is hardly as active and prolific as Wondaland, but it retains a roster in spite of this: Monáe is actually signed to Purple Ribbon, and her work is distributed through a joint deal with Diddy’s Bad Boy Records. Other signees include Sleepy Brown, a key member of Organized Noize, and Konkrete.
What’s Next for Hip-Pop’s Creative Queen?
Though her production work is eclipsed by both her stellar performances and eye-catching persona, Janelle Monáe’s involvement across the entire artistic process is an indispensable aspect of her approach. It allows her to function as a true musical auteur: by writing, producing and performing on almost all her tracks, she’s the central ‘author’ of her art.
That’s not to diminish the contributions of Monáe’s Wondaland team – namely Roman GianArthur, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder – whose stylings have helped shape and inform her bold sonic direction. In surrounding herself with close and consistent collaborators, she’s helped furnish an aesthetic informed by artists she trusts and admires.
Monáe’s music, though often treated as her primary vocation, is one of her many equally weighted artistic avenues. On Dirty Computer, she fuses her music with film, imparting her vision through a 50-minute short film starring Tessa Thompson and Monáe herself. It’s something she’s considered for some time: beyond the cinematic sheen of music videos such as “PrimeTime” and “Q.U.E.E.N.,” she described The ArchAndroid as an “emotion picture” – the same description she used for Dirty Computer’s short film – as far back as 2010. The film was co-directed by Wondaland’s own Chuck Lightning. It marked the Deep Cotton member’s first foray into direction, yet another example of the heavily collaborative and creatively accommodating scene that she fosters.
It’s anyone’s guess as to where Monáe goes next: her musical recognition in the mainstream runs parallel to her steadily increasing cinematic work, a career that demands time, energy and commitment. Though it’s hard to imagine the ArchAndroid stepping back from music altogether, it seems possible that her next album might be a ways off: star turns in Moonlight and Hidden Figures almost instantly catapulted her to the highest tiers of Hollywood, a competitive space of great opportunity.
Perhaps Monáe’s music will skew more cinematic, or maybe her films will take a musical turn? Whatever happens next, one thing seems certain: the Wondaland roster will be right there with her.