Joshua Lerner has bow tie envy.
Five minutes into the video for Janelle Monae’s new single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” there is a cut to a man in a tuxedo clacking out a repeated line on a typewriter: “We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years.” Like the rest of the song and video, this flash of thematic content is both mystifying and enticing. Monae’s work creates a world in which every character, color scheme, and costume may relay a theme or plot point to her ongoing Wondaland saga. Which art movements? Why ten? Wait, create and destroy?
For followers of Monae’s sci-fi fictionalizing, there is a lot to pick at in “Q.U.E.E.N.” Her band members, singers, and dancers (all black and dressed in some manner of black and white) are declared as “legendary rebels” and creators of a “musical weapons program in the 21st century.” The big kick is that Monae’s crew left around some “freedom movements” disguised as “songs, emotion pictures, and works of art.” They’ve all since been frozen and put on display in some kind of art exhibit. But you know by the end of the song they’ll be throwing down on some legendary rebel dance party shit.
Lyrically, “Q.U.E.E.N.” doesn’t advance the Wondaland story so much as put Monae in a more overt social and political context. The song is more tethered to the real world than perhaps anything else she’s produced before. She brags about being indefinable. Then she proves the claim by boasting about her twerking skills—even while spending most of the video alternating between her now iconic tuxedo and an op-art dress referencing the 1966 French art film Who Are You, Polly Magoo? By the end of the number, she has proven herself as an inheritor of the pop-funk of Prince, the self-confidence of Madonna, and the orchestral social uplift of Marvin Gaye (while rapping about him).
Above all, though, “Q.U.E.E.N.” is, in style and substance, about the limitless forms of black female expression. In a year when the most popular take-down of Drake is that his penchant for singing and soul-searching somehow makes him a girl, Monae is a leader of rebel fighters, anything but soft. Nor does her status as a black female artist confine her to the categorical catch-all of R&B. She’s spitting bars in the outro. Plus the main instrument here is electric guitar, and the new album’s title, The Electric Lady, is a sly reference to Jimi. She refuses to be labeled a “freak” in a song that is peppered with allusions to homosexuality. And she’ll keep rocking that tuxedo. Still, even with all that defiance of gender and genre expectations: the booty don’t lie.