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Artist of the Week: Janelle Monae

The quirky diva has a hit with her unique blend of art-rock, R&B and sci-fi — and made fans out of everyone from Big Boi to Obama

June 30, 2010 3:22 PM ET

Janelle Monáe is walking through midtown Manhattan on the day before the release of her second album, The ArchAndroid. Barely five feet tall, dressed in all white and wearing her hair in her usual Fifties-style quiff, Monáe is recognized by two excited teenage girls, two men in their Thirties, and a fifty-something-year-old black man who says he'll be in line at midnight to buy The ArchAndroid. Monáe chats with each, and later she lets slip the name of her most famous admirer: Barack Obama. "People that worked in his campaign have told us he is very aware of me," she says. "He's a fan." (The White House did not respond to a request for confirmation.)

Monáe, 24, is a diva with a little something for everyone — an R&B star who’s also an art-rocker, a Broadway belter and a sci-fi nerd. Set in the year 2719, The ArchAndroid is a concept album about a robot named Cindi Mayweather, who is persecuted by humans but proves to be a Messianic figure for the denizens of a town called Metropolis. Monáe dreamt up the basics of the story after watching Metropolis, Fritz Lang's 1927 classic set in a dystopian future. "It's a black and white German expressionist film, but it represents what we’re still going through," Monáe says. "It's about the battle between the haves and the have-nots."

The Archandroid, which debuted at Number 17 on the charts, is full of vibrantly outré soul jams, from the funk-pumping single "Tightrope" (which features OutKast’s Big Boi) to the surrealistic pop of "Make the Bus," written by Kevin Barnes of the psych-rock band Of Montreal. "It’s almost like she invented a new art form," says Barnes, who met Monáe after an Of Montreal show and bonded with her over a shared love of Stevie Wonder and white stallions (Monáe rode one in the video for "Many Moons"; Barnes sang atop one during a concert). "She's the real deal — no photoshop needed, no Auto-Tune needed."

Monáe (born Janelle Monáe Robinson) grew up in Kansas City, Kansas as the daughter of a janitor mother and a crack-addicted father. Her dad’s addiction made for rough times — Monáe's family often had to live with her grandmother — but she was an incredibly precocious kid, devouring P-Funk Records and Twilight Zone re-runs, writing plays about anthropomorphic plants, and performing in musicals like "The Wiz."

Her breakthrough moment came after she’d moved to Atlanta for college. Monáe jumped onstage at an open mic night and sang Roberta Flack’s "Killing me Softly." Big Boi was in the audience. "He came up and said, 'Man, that was inspiring!'" Monáe says. "He and André 3000 featured me on two songs on the Idlewild soundtrack." Later, Diddy took interest, hitting Monáe up on MySpace, flying to Atlanta to catch one of her gigs and signing her to a distribution deal with Bad Boy records.

Around the time of the Diddy deal, Monáe conjured up her current image: Onstage, she wears a black suit, string tie and saddle shoes, making for a retro style that plays against her futuristic music. "I call it my 'uniform,'" Monáe says. "My mother was a janitor and my father collected trash, so I wear a uniform too." As for the hair, Monáe just stumbled across the look while experimenting with different styles. An Atlanta friend invented a device for her that sculpts the plume automatically. "It's like a toaster," Monáe says. "You just stick your head into it."

Monáe’s sci-fi weirdness can feel a bit forced; when asked if she still attends church (she was raised Baptist), she only says, "I attend an Android community church in Metropolis." She gives a similar answer when asked about her sexuality (her outré look and penchant for pants over skirts has caused some to wonder if she’s gay). "The lesbian community has tried to claim me," she says. "But I only date androids. Nothing like an android — they don’t cheat on you."

But Monáe also believes — quite plausibly — that she will help redefine what’s possible for black female performers. "I'm trying to open doors for girls who look like myself and have been told they can’t sing about this or that," she says.

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