Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, and actor Janelle Monáe left her mark on 2010s R&B with an energized retro-futuristic sound wrapped in theatrical science fiction concepts.
After she spent years grinding away in the Atlanta underground, Monáe capitalized on support from OutKast's Big Boi and developed into one of the most dynamic artists of her time, fusing soul, funk, hip-hop, and new wave -- among other genres -- with a spirited approach that seemed to treat entertainment and art as indivisible. She and her fellow Wondaland associates likewise stressed singles as much as albums. "Tightrope" and "Django Jane" provided bold jolts, while The ArchAndroid (2010), The Electric Lady (2013), and Dirty Computer (2018), all complex full-lengths, elaborated upon themes of oppression, identity, and liberation as they related to race and sexuality.
Growing up, Janelle Monáe Robinson felt constrained by the limited resources offered in her greater Kansas City, Kansas environment. When she finished high school, she moved to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy with the intention of pursuing musical theater. After performing in a couple off-Broadway shows and encountering a lack of desirable roles, she opted to try her luck in Atlanta. She soon joined a band and toured the local college circuit, where she eventually got in touch with her future partners in Wondaland Arts Society -- a collective and label that looked to promote experimental arts -- and recorded The Audition, which she financed, released, and distributed in a run of a few hundred copies. OutKast's Big Boi included two of the songs from the set, the Off the Wall-styled "Lettin' Go" and an electro version of DeBarge's "Time Will Reveal," on his 2005 compilation Got Purp?, Vol. 2. Robinson also appeared on OutKast's 2006 soundtrack, Idlewild, and was in the video for "Morris Brown."
Robinson made her proper solo debut in August 2007 with an EP entitled The Chase, the first of four planned "Metropolis suites" based in the year 2719 with a character named Cindi Mayweather as the protagonist. Its mix of cabaret, soul, hip-hop, and new wave was well received and found a fan in Sean "Diddy" Combs. Rumors about a signing were finally confirmed in March 2008, when Combs announced Robinson as the newest member of his Bad Boy roster. Robinson promised that the move wouldn't compromise any of her artistic integrity or creativity, and a re-release of The Chase, featuring bonus content, followed shortly thereafter. The second and third suites of Metropolis were issued together as components of The ArchAndroid. Released in May 2010, the album debuted at number 17 on the Billboard 200 and resulted in the first of several Grammy nominations for Robinson, including Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance, the latter for lead single "Tightrope."
After Fun.'s number one pop hit "We Are Young," featuring Robinson, was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, Robinson returned in September 2013 with The Electric Lady. Billed as Metropolis suites four and five, it was even more expansive than the preceding full-length -- Prince, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding, Solange, and Miguel were among the guests -- and entered the Billboard 200 at number five. Robinson then moved the Wondaland label to Epic and launched the partnership with Wondaland Presents: The Eephus, a various-artists EP featuring her "Yoga" and, more significantly, Jidenna's platinum single "Classic Man." On tour in support of the EP, Robinson and her band performed the anti-police brutality song "Hell You Talmbout," not included on The Eephus but released separately as an instrumental. Occupied with acting roles in two of the biggest films of 2016, the award-winning Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Robinson recorded intermittently, including but not limited to a part in the multi-artist charity recording "This Is for the Girls," songs for the Hidden Figures soundtrack, and a contribution to Jidenna's The Chief. She also collaborated with Grimes and recorded "Hum Along and Dance (Gotta Get Down)" for the Netflix series The Get Down. In April 2018, she released her third album, the frolicsome yet defiant Dirty Computer. The comparatively pop-oriented album was previewed with "Django Jane" and "Make Me Feel," the latter of which added Julia Michaels and Justin Trantor to Robinson's list of studio collaborators. ~ Andy Kellman & Marisa Brown, Rovi