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Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe is one of the most dynamic artists of their time, fusing soul, funk, hip-hop, and new wave -- among other genres -- with a spirited conceptual approach that seems to treat art and entertainment as indivisible. The Grammy-nominated singer/rapper, songwriter, arranger, producer, actor, and author spent years grinding away in the Atlanta underground before they left their mark on 2010s R&B with a stylish retro-futuristic sound wrapped in theatrical science-fiction themes. Their albums The ArchAndroid (2010), The Electric Lady (2013), and Dirty Computer (2018), all Top 20 hits, are complex works examining subjects such as oppression, identity, and liberation as they relate to race and sexuality. At the same time, Monáe and their Wondaland collaborators have stressed singles as much as epic full-length statements, earning gold certifications for "Tightrope" (featuring early supporter Big Boi), "Yoga," "Make Me Feel," and "I Like That." Monáe's third album became the basis of The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer (2022), their first collection of sci-fi writing. As an actor, Monáe is known for their roles in films such as Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Antebellum, as well as the series Homecoming. Growing up, Janelle Monáe felt constrained by the limited resources offered in their greater Kansas City, Kansas environment. When they finished high school, they 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, they opted to try their luck in Atlanta. They soon joined a band and toured the local college circuit, where they eventually got in touch with their future partners in Wondaland Arts Society -- a collective and label that looked to promote experimental arts -- and recorded The Audition, which they 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. Monáe also appeared on OutKast's 2006 soundtrack Idlewild and was in the video for "Morris Brown." Monáe made their 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 Monáe as the newest member of his Bad Boy roster. Monáe promised that the move wouldn't compromise any of their 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 Monáe, 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 Monáe, was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, Monáe 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. Monáe then moved the Wondaland label to Epic and launched the partnership with 2015's Wondaland Presents: The Eephus, a various-artists EP featuring their "Yoga" and, more significantly, Jidenna's platinum single "Classic Man." On tour in support of the EP, Monáe and their 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, Monáe 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. They also collaborated with Grimes and recorded "Hum Along and Dance (Gotta Get Down)" for the Netflix series The Get Down. In April 2018, they released their third album, the frolicsome yet defiant Dirty Computer. The comparatively pop-oriented set was previewed with "Django Jane" and "Make Me Feel," the latter of which added Julia Michaels and Justin Trantor to Monáe's list of studio collaborators. Along with debuting at number six on the Billboard 200, the album earned Monáe two Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. More acting roles followed for Monáe over the next few years. They included a supporting role in the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, and appearing as noted feminist and child welfare advocate Dorothy Pitman Hughes in the Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias, plus starring roles in the horror film Antebellum and the second season of psychological thriller series Homecoming. Monáe concurrently recorded the song "Turntables" for the documentary film All In: The Fight for Democracy. In 2021, Monáe was behind "Stronger" (for the educational animated series We the People) and an 18-minute updated version of "Hell You Talmbout." "Say Her Name (Hell You Talmbout)" -- featuring over a dozen voices ranging from those of Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Brittany Howard to Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Monáe -- debuted on The New York Times Best Sellers list in 2022 with the sci-fi collection The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. Having come out four years earlier as pansexual, Monáe confirmed in 2022 that they identify as nonbinary. Early the following year they collaborated with Sean Kuti and Egypt 80 on the single "Float."
© Andy Kellman /TiVo
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