Janelle Monáe and Randall Thompson

All the musicians I trust for recommendations in real life and on the web agree: the hottest artist in the universe right now is Janelle Monáe.

Her staggeringly ambitious album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) is reason to be optimistic for the future of music. The big single is “Tightrope,” featuring Big Boi of Outkast, and the video is worth watching just for the shoes:

The ArchAndroid is not very sample-heavy. Actually, it’s remarkable how much varied live instrumentation it uses. But the few samples in there are killers. The first one that jumped out at me is in “Locked Inside.”

Fifteen seconds in, there’s a sample of the drum intro to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.”

There are some classical music references too. The Suite III overture quotes Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” And for me personally, the most surprising and evocative sample comes at the end of “Wondaland.”

The choral singing is an excerpt of “Alleluia” by Randall Thompson.

This piece of music is a choral cliché but for good reason, it’s a beauty. Wikipedia says it was commissioned by the Tanglewood Festival as a fanfare to kick off the festivities in 1940. Randall Thompson didn’t feel very festive, what with the war and all, so he wrote a moody and pensive piece instead. He meant for it to be sung slow, and while conductors rarely obey his tempo instruction, it still has an introspective wistfulness when sung fast. The whole text is the word alleluia, repeated like a mantra, with a single amen at the end. Thompson said that he thought of it as

a very sad piece. The word “Alleluia” has so many possible interpretations. The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous. It is a slow, sad piece, and…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The first time I heard it was the night before I graduated from college. It was a weird night. I felt like a huge blowout party would have been the symbolically appropriate thing, but I didn’t know of any, and I wouldn’t have had much fun if I had gone to one. I felt really strange that night. I’ve since learned that feeling depressed or anxious the night before a graduation is pretty ordinary, especially if you have a complex family. (One of my friends with an even more complex family than mine told me later that she spent the night before her graduation tripping out of her skull; it shocked me then, but it doesn’t now.) I had my entire nuclear family assembled for the occasion, which was a rarity. There was my sister, my mom and stepfather, that was usual. There was also my dad and younger stepfather — having them in the same place as my mom and stepfather was strange. My grandmother was there too, and it was really surreal having her and my dad together. I can’t even think of another occasion when this specific combination of my loved ones was together. Maybe one or two of my birthdays when I was a kid? Certainly it had been a long time. To compound the intense feelings, my stepmother had died seven months before, and that was still hanging over all of us.

So the night before graduation, I felt out-of-body, not depressed exactly, I didn’t even know what that meant yet, but definitely not all present. I had some friends singing in the choral society, so I went to hear them. They sang “Alleluia” and it snapped me right into focus. It was so beautiful I couldn’t believe it. The evening got better, too. Wynton Marsalis was our graduation speaker. After the choral concert, someone grabbed me and told me Wynton was jamming with an alum in one of the music classrooms. He ended up treating us to a bunch of impromptu standards, with this random guy accompanying him gamely, it was pretty magical. Jazz got me through a lot of other difficult emotional stretches in the years following.

Anyway. Years later, I pick up this album by an R&B singer I’ve barely heard of, and there’s this huge walloping mass of associations waiting for me. This is why I love sample-based music. It creates dense webs of association and meaning, and that’s what music is all about. Ms Monáe packs a lot of ideas into this album, it’s wildly dense with them, and you may well find some surprises in it of your own.

3 thoughts on “Janelle Monáe and Randall Thompson

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