Janelle Monáe (above), an American singer, songwriter and rapper, calls her records “emotion pictures”. Her first two releases, “The ArchAndroid” (2010) and “The Electric Lady” (2013), were elaborate concept albums, rich with funk and soul. Though nimble and playful, they revealed little of Monáe herself who often seemed to disappear into a robotic persona.
That’s all changing with Dirty Computer, her latest LP. Monáe says this is her most vulnerable record yet, but it’s also her most confident, finding her exulting in “black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it”. The title conjures up not just techno-lust (though there’s plenty of that) but actual dirt too. Monáe has spoken of celebrating those who refuse to let society “take the dirt off of them”. In her case, that means stepping forward as someone both conflicted and defiant. She is an artist who wants to change the world while revelling in all its messy contradictions.
Her lead single, “Make Me Feel”, boasts a synth line from her mentor, Prince, and slyly addresses her rumoured bisexuality. She croons about going on “an emotional, sexual bender”; in the music video she flits between male and female love interests. It’s a song that summarises her enticing paradox: a sound with mass appeal that still writhes with eccentricity. ~ DAN PIEPENBRING
Dirty Computer out now
Listening to Australian Courtney Barnett’s music is like going round to a friend’s house for a chat and a cup of tea. You hear about how she got an asthma attack pulling up weeds in the garden, how she went house-hunting in a rough neighbourhood in Melbourne. It could be dull, but the singer and songwriter is a gripping raconteur. With an eye for the telling detail and a keen emotional acuity, she invests her odes to the banal with humour and a surprising poignancy. By the time you’ve finished listening to a song like “Avant-Gardener”, you can’t help liking her.
On Tell Me How You Really Feel, her raw second album, Barnett drinks something stronger than tea. This “empty-bottle blues” bruises you with sadness, anger and crippling self-doubt. On “Hopefulessness”, a pack of howling guitars gives Barnett’s despair cosmic force – that is until her keening segues into the whistle of a kettle, and her black mood seems to lift just long enough to ask: won’t you stay for another cuppa? ~ CHARLIE McCANN
Tell Me How You Really Feel out May 18th
I put a spell on you
Haiti’s musical culture rivalled Cuba’s until the despotic “Papa Doc” Duvalier took over in the late 1950s. After decades in the doldrums it’s back in recovery mode and singer-songwriter Mélissa Laveaux is part of the upturn. Born in Canada to Haitian parents, she wanted to reconnect with her heritage. After researching folk music in Port-au-Prince she recorded Radyo Siwèl, an album that stitches together traditional songs and voodoo hymns. During the American occupation of Haiti, from 1915 to 1934, voodoo priests invoked the help of divinities in Haiti’s struggle against the oppressors. “I looked for songs which would have been sung to tell the Americans they weren’t welcome,” Laveaux says. For those cris de coeur, she adopts a combative tone, but for much of the album her husky, expressive voice and the gentle indie-rock backing produces a surprisingly convivial effect. As Laveaux says, when asked how she views her album, “the spirits don’t seem displeased”. ~ MICHAEL CHURCH
Radyo Siwèl out now
Fanfare for the uncommon woman
Women are finally muscling their way into jazz’s mainstream. About time too, you may say. Maria Grand, a 25-year-old tenor saxophonist born to a Swiss mother and Argentine father, is just one of them. She plays with a rare combination of warmth and conviction, and has just released Magdalena, an angular, stripped-down album. She favours winding lines that are dense with melodic ideas, while still leaving plenty of room for A-list collaborators such as Mary Halvorson to chime in. With song titles like “Isis”, “Maria” and “Magdalena”, this project is a tribute to powerful women, and should be compulsory listening for inside the jazz world and out. ~ NATALIE WEiNER
Magdalena out May 11th