Janelle Monáe swung for the fences on 2010's hyper-ambitious The ArchAndroid, hustling between musical styles and sidestepping pop star shenanigans in order to announce the arrival of a serious artiste. The Electric Lady doesn't represent a reimagining of Monáe's project. It is just as genre-hopping, just as postmodern, just as puckish, and just as earnest as The ArchAndroid.
What TEL does is allow Monáe to try on new personas, from the Donna Summer funk diva she trots out on the playfully titled "We Were Rock & Roll," to the contemporary R&B video vixen of "Q.U.E.E.N.," to the gospel-and-soul-inspired belter on "Victory." That idea - there are many Janelles, there is no "Janelle," we are all Janelle - seems to be her driving thesis statement (the Orphan Black-esque cover art makes this explicit, showing six different versions of the artist that are barely distinguishable copies of the "original").
Monáe's the coolest artist on the pop/R&B charts, made clear by the album's roster of guest stars - Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel, Esperanza Spaulding, and Prince (Monáe's one of the obvious heirs to Prince's legacy - André 3000 was once also a serious contender - though modern-day Prince should be thankful someone as relevant and exciting as Monáe will even have him). TEL is, most of all, deeply joyful and full of energy. Its arrival makes you want to hide recent releases by pretenders like Timberlake or Thicke in the darkest closet, behind your rows of tuxedos and brothel creepers.