Metropolis: The Chase Suite is a concept album — one of four parts. Did any concept albums influence you?
Actually, no. I’ve heard about David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and I have never listened to it. I’ve been wanting to, but you know when I’m writing there’s only so much information that I want to allow myself to take in. I want to be really like careful, but I’m very tempted to listen it because I hear it’s incredible.
So where did you get the idea for Metropolis?
Metropolis is not something I made up. It was a black-and-white silent film from 1927 by Fritz Lang, a German expressionist. It really spoke out to me — the constant struggles between the haves and the have-nots [depicted in the film] are still going on today. I’m a huge lover of science fiction as well: I love Octavia Butler and Isaac Asimov and The Twilight Zone, and Blade Runner, and of course The Matrix and Star Wars. I’ve always had a fascination with the supernatural. So I kind of meshed all this in my mind.
The album paints a dystopian picture of the year 2719, when evil cyborgs are set to take over the Earth. It sounds like something you’d dream up in an acid-fueled state. Were you using any chemical enhancements?
Oh, no, no, no. My father is a recovering crack addict — he was in and out of prison — so I’ve seen the ups and downs of drug addiction. Things were taken from us growing up — I would win like $500 in a talent show and I had to give it to my mom to help pay for the light bill and the gas bill — so I don’t play around [with drugs] at all. A lot of my uncles and cousins got strung out on crack. It was embarrassing at times — I didn’t want your friends to know about it. But I had to grow up and learn from it.
The album tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android who falls in love with a human. How did you come up with that storyline?
Cindi Mayweather is real — that’s not a made-up act. She actually does exist. She’s a real android, and she and I made a pact to tell our respective lands about what’s going in Metropolis and what’s going on now. And our job really with this album is to really help save the future. From what I was told there clones come into our world and take humans and push them forward to 2719. Cindy is programmed not to love, not to feel, but she does, and it’s kind of like if she lets anyone know that she’s fallen in love or that she has human characteristics, she could easily be disassembled. I don’t want to do is diminish the story by like me trying to sum it all up for you right now. In suites Two and Three you’ll get to know Cindy more. This isn’t an alter-ego for me, you know.
Pretty far-out. Is that how you got Big Boi’s attention?
I met Big Boi when I was at Justin’s in Atlanta. I was doing an open-mike night and he was in the audience. I had no idea he was there, and I got offstage and I felt this hand grab my arm and it was Big Boi, and he was just telling me how much he liked the show. He said he was inspired, and he wanted to get me on the Big Boi Presents Got Purp? Volume II compilation. So I was a part of that, and then he and Andre 3000 came to me about getting on the Idlewild album. Ever since that, Big Boi has been a mentor to me, like a big brother.
Earlier this year, Diddy signed you to his Bad Boy label, and he’s called you one of the most important signings of his career. How did you guys meet?
Diddy had heard my music on MySpace. I got this message from him on MySpace, and I didn’t respond back; I didn’t think it was him. And then Big Boi called me and he was like, “Puff has been blowing up my phone all morning! He listened to the songs on your MySpace page and he’s just really blown away.” So Puff figured out a way to get us all on the phone and he just expressed how excited he was about the project and if there’s anything he could do to help out, he’s here.
With all these mentors around, have you gotten some good career advice?
Well, Prince talked to me! I did a show in L.A. with Raphael Saadiq and after the show, this girl came to my dressing room and she was like, “Hey, is Janelle Monae back here?” And I was like, “Yeah. It’s me.” And she was like, “I have a phone call for you.” So she gives me her phone and in this really deep voice I hear, “Hello, Janelle, it’s Prince.” And I’m like, “Hi, Prince, how are you?” And he’s like, “I’m well. I’m well. Listen, I’m sorry I missed your show. I wanted to let you know that I love your jazz voice. I love what it is that you’re doing.”
Were you freaking out?
Totally. He said he wanted to give me advice before I got too involved within the industry, and that if I ever needed to speak with him, he’s always available. So I called him and we talked about stage lighting. I thought I was in a dream.
You obviously have a super-unique style — the pompadour, the saddle shoes. How did the hairdo come about?
Well I actually have a machine. I put it in this sculpting machine just to do my hair like it is, like you see it, and I pop it in there and it comes back out and it’s like wrapped around.
Do you think Little Richard had a hair machine?
I don’t know. I’m pretty sure he did. He probably hid it from everybody.
Can you buy it?
It has to be custom made. I designed it, of course. I can’t tell you who made it. But maybe, if I meet you and you’re a nice person, I’ll let you in on the secret.
What’s it called?
I’ve never gotten into labels, from my music to my hair. So I don’t even know what I would call it. I’m a big supporter of Andy Warhol — he always said to never label your art. Let everyone else try and figure it out, and while they’re trying to figure it out you continue to make more art.