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Janelle Monae in Wondaland

The Atlanta-based musician lets her creative spirits flow through song, dance and her Wondaland Arts Society collective, which welcomes all artists into the groove.

June 20, 2010|By Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • COLLECTIVE: Nate "Rocket" Wonder, left, Janelle Mone and Chuck Lightning make eclectic music together.
COLLECTIVE: Nate "Rocket" Wonder, left, Janelle Mone and Chuck… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

Reporting from Atlanta — — Janelle Monáe's feet moved in S curves as her band laid down a backbeat in the converted garage that acts as a music room inside Wondaland, the brick house that serves as her Atlanta headquarters. The singer watched herself in a wall of mirrors as she danced. The sound was sharp and pulled together, like the black and white service industry-style uniforms that each musician wore. This may have been just a rehearsal for an upcoming appearance on "The Mo'Nique Show," but at Wondaland, everything is a real performance, pursued with grace and forethought.

"This has to be right on," said Monáe, leading the players through the sizzling James Brown-style fake endings of the song "Tightrope." "Make sure you hit my cue." The history of funk bubbled through Kellindo Parker's guitar parts; you could hear a little Prince, a little Outkast. The melody, like a string let loose and pulled taut again, was Monáe's own, as were the lyrics about maintaining balance on life's unpredictable turns. "You can't get too high! You can't get too low!" she spit, the look on her face modulating from determination to delight.

As Monáe honed in on her music, the house came alive. Members of the Wondaland Arts Society — Monáe's chosen artistic family — kept bustling in, past the dozens of Dali-esque clocks on the walls in the hallway ("They're for the time travelers," Monáe informed a visitor), past the shelves full of literary theory, business books and novels by Zadie Smith and Junot Díaz, past the television silently playing Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" in the living room.

A team assigned to kitchen duty prepared a feast of skewered meats and veggies and scrumptious barbecued beans. Others held impromptu planning meetings and scanned their laptops, keeping tabs on Monáe's Twitter feed. It was early May, with just days to go until Monáe's full-length major-label debut, "The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)," would be released by Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment.

The video for "Tightrope," with Monáe doing her tricky moves with four Memphis-based jook dancers she discovered via the Web, is a YouTube sensation, and she's gaining raves on the select dates she's opening for Erykah Badu, a gig that brings her to the Greek Theatre on Sunday.

Both in conversation and in her music, Monáe presents herself as remarkably bold and sure of her vision. Her singing style marries clarity and power in ways that recall greats such as Lena Horne and Dinah Washington, although she's able to let out a glam-rock wail when the song calls for it. She's also a talented rapper, with a wickedly precise flow.

"I do think they're completely capable of having an impact on their generation's intellectual and pop-cultural life," said the writer and musician Greg Tate, a longtime mentor to Monáe and her collaborators, "mainly because they're equally committed to the art, ideas and business aspects of what they do."

"I've always had really big ideas," said Monáe, who set her sights on Broadway while still in grade school. "I dreamed of writing my own movie and starring in it — all these audacious goals and ideas. Initially, though, I think I loved musical theater more than pop music. I didn't even have a love of being my own artist. Then once I got in touch with my own ideas, I knew there was some light in me trying to come out."

It was through co-founding and nurturing the Wondaland Arts Society that Monáe developed that luminosity. The semi-communal group of free-ranging creatives — a dozen or so young writers, musicians, producers, visual artists, video bloggers, dancers, actors and entrepreneurs — is spearheaded by Monáe and her production and writing partners Chuck Lightning and Nate "Rocket" Wonder. The collective is forging new ways to connect hip-hop to other musical genres, literary culture, the performing arts and the World Wide Web.

"I want us to grow into a nurturing place for other artists who have great ideas and music and are brilliant performers, and help expose that to the world," said Monáe during an interview in Wondaland's basement recording studio after her rehearsal. "This project is the launch. It will bring the attention and I'll go out and test the waters for everybody. That's always been the goal."

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