The idea of introducing yourself to the world with a fantastically ambitious, genre-splicing, sci-fi concept album about a 28th-century android that features guests as disparate as OutKast rapper Big Boi and psychedelic indie rockers Of Montreal might seem weird to some people.
But not to Janelle Monae.
"That's just part of the Great Divide," says the 24-year-old behind The ArchAndroid, the full-length debut that was inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 classic futuristic film Metropolis and is easily the most dazzlingly varied platter of pop music to come out in 2010.
The 5-foot-tall Kansas City native, whose Grace Jones pompadour is as oversize as her black bow tie, was talking on the phone from her home in Atlanta as she prepared to board the tour bus that will bring her to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Tuesday, when she will open for Erykah Badu.
"That's what I'm fighting against: dividing people," says the singer, who cites Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Hitchcock as style icons and is as likely to impress with a foray into pastoral English folk as she is to get on the good foot with the rubbery James Brown funk of "Tightrope."
"My palette for music is very diverse," says Monae, who released both The ArchAndroid and her 2008 EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite on her own Wondaland Arts Society label, with distribution through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Records. "Just from growing up in the iPod generation. I don't have all classical music on my iPod, or all hip-hop. I have different songs from different genres that I listen to. I definitely want to fight against those divisive tactics that try to make it seem weird for someone to be into rock-and-roll music because I look like myself."
You don't need to know this to enjoy the 70-minute, slightly overstuffed album that moves with ease from modern R&B to rockabilly to jump blues, but The ArchAndroid tells Part 2 and 3 of Monae's saga of Cindy Mayweather, an android messiah who returns to Earth in a quest to end all prejudice.
"She's my muse for this project," Monae says. "She represents the Other. And I feel like all of us, whether in the majority or the minority, felt like the Other at some point."
Monae felt that way, she says, growing up as a hypercreative kid in Kansas who caught the sci-fi bug watching The Twilight Zone with her grandmother. "That's how it all started," she says. She then became fascinated by cyborgs after seeing Alien and dug deeper into the fantasy realm with Metropolis, which she considers "the godfather of science-fiction movies." She refers to The ArchAndroid as "an e-motion picture" and says a video will be shot for each of the album's 17 songs.
She felt further alienated when she moved to New York to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
"I wanted a career in the musical theater world and on Broadway," she says. "But I didn't want to be too influenced by standardized teaching. I felt like we were all being deprogrammed, in a way. And I wanted to keep everything that was unique about Janelle Monae, and write my own musicals. That's why I left."
She calls her trademark tuxedo jacket and tie "my superhero uniform."
"I grew up in a working-class family," says Monae, who has lived in Atlanta for seven years. "My mother was a janitor. My father drove trash trucks. My stepfather still works at the post office. So I was paying homage to them."
She views suiting up for a performance - like opening for No Doubt, or Badu, or like the over-the-top "Tightrope" performance she turned in on Late Show With David Letterman last month that has to be Googled to be believed - as a necessary step to getting ready to go to work.
"Each artist that's committed to art has the opportunity to see beauty and messages that a normal person may not be able to see," she says. "I want to do that on my own terms, and I know I have a responsibility to the people who are going through everyday life's obstacles, and are feeling oppressed and depressed and suppressed. And I definitely want to create music that empowers and uplifts them. This is my job."