Sometimes even the most jaded music fan listens to an album one time through and thinks to himself, "Holy shit, this is the record I've been waiting for all my life!" It doesn't happen very often, granted, but when it does, it makes every Brett Michaels solo record you've had to endure and every piece of publicity-spam in your inbox seem worth the trouble. Every once in a great, great while, you get an album like Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) that reminds you why you don't collect stamps, subscribe to Cat Fancy or listen to V-102.9 — a reminder of the pure visceral joy of opening Pandora's jukebox.
When you find an album like that, you've got to tell someone. With a quickness.
I had to tell my Uncle Simon. When initial shock of the The ArchAndroid wore off, moments after the final piano notes rung out on the nine-minute album closer "BabopbyeYa" — a deep, orchestral-jazz-hop number that evokes Sarah Vaughan, The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed and next-school internationalist Quantic (simultaneously!) — when I finally caught my breath after a 68-minute sprint through the rich and detailed world of Monae's Metropolis, I knew that Simon was on the top of my list of people who needed to know about this funky, progressive pop masterpiece.
See, Simon had been my tutor in the nerdy arts — he was my sensei of sci-fi, and I his padawan of prog-rock. Simon is a Parisian who married my mother's sister Susan — the aunt who went to visit France and never came back, save for six weeks every summer. (The French have some ridiculous vacation time.) Simon was and is a collectibles reseller, and we would spend those ridiculous French vacations of his driving around looking for comics and gold-foiled collectors cards, listening to music and discussing it endlessly.
(No 12-year-old has ever expended so much energy contemplating the pre-haircut catalog of Lenny Kravitz.)
As influential as those adolescent summers were — discovering Moebius' Airtight Garage pretty much ruined Marvel comics for me — they don't hold a candle to the two weeks I spent with Susan and Simon in Paris in 1997, right after high school graduation. This was the first time I saw Simon's whole CD collection. This is when I passed from being just kind of a nerd and went full-blown geek. This is when I discover prog. And Zappa. And non-Purple Rain Prince. And Mojo magazine. And that Wu-Tang lyrics are the international language, at least if you're an American smoking hash with random Arab kids in a park. (Simon had nothing to do with that last one, in case you're reading this, Mom. Still, it's an important life lesson.)
Contained in that summer was the week OK Computer came out in Europe, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element opened in Paris, and Daft Punk's "Around the World" video was in constant rotation on either side of the pond. Geekery-as-high-art was everywhere in Paris. Or maybe just where I was hanging out — mostly record stores and panini stands that would sell 17-year-old me beer. While none of the textbook examples might have stuck with me — I seem to remember having a really good lunch near the Picasso museum, and that's about it — the art I did discover that summer in Paris shaped the way that I view life and culture to this day.
And since I pretty much owed that incredible summer to him, I couldn't not tell Simon about The ArchAndroid. What kind of nephew would I be if I didn't alert him to the best concept for a concept record in the last, say, three decades — it's about robots in love on the run from an oppressive totalitarian regime, for cryin' out loud. How was I supposed keep mum about an artist that name-checks Isaac Asimov, runs with Big Boi and dropped an album that could be the greatest artistic statement in a generation?
Monae manages to channel Michael Jackson and Astrud Gilberto, wades deep into the world of Lee Hazelwood on "Sir Greenwood" and gets all soaring-futuristic-fight-song — complete with '80s action movie guitar solo — on "Cold War." And don't get me started on the funky Northern Soul bounce of "Tight Rope" or whether "57281" hems closer to Odessey & Oracle or The Free Design. If "Wondaland" — a chiming, phase-drenched piece of electro-pop (think Martin Denny, in space, with The Velvettes) — doesn't make you put in a prayer request for a robot uprising, nothing will.
Obviously, the lack of Monae in Simon's life needed to be rectified. You've got to look out for your family, right?
One of the best things about living in The Future — hey it's 2010, the year we make contact, let me revel in my geekiness, please — is that I didn't even leave my computer to let him know. Back in the summer of '97, if you had told me that I could send my uncle in Paris an entire record with one click, I'd have said, "No way, dude, my mom will never pay for a 56K modem," then started talking about how cool Geocities was. Times have changed, and keep changing faster than anyone would expect. That's why The ArchAndroid is the best album for this moment. The 21st century had yet to see an artistic evolution that matched the technical evolution happening around it. And that's why I plan to have it bumping in my flying car when I pick up my own nephews to search for holo-comics and cybercards in the year 2525.