How Janelle Monáe Done Changed Hip Hop

Janelle Monáe Lipstick Lover Press Photo. Credit: Mason Rose
Janelle Monáe Lipstick Lover Press Photo. Credit: Mason Rose

An essay about how I see the genre-bending artist as situated in and influential of hip hop culture in addition to the more commonly attributed funk and R&B.

“No, I’m not the same. I think I done changed.” 

These lines have been a constant refrain in my head since Janelle Monáe dropped the lead single, “Float”, off their new album, “The Age of Pleasure,” in February. The song, and the now released album, invite listeners into a space of both self-reclamation and self-discovery. I’ve been considering the lyrics as they relate to what Monáe has shared of their personal identity journey with the public, as they relate to my own identity journey, and as they relate to a critical milestone for hip hop music and culture. 

For those who don’t know, hip hop is turning 50 this year and there is a lot to celebrate, consider, and continue to challenge in the genre. The origins of hip hop are generally credited to some innovative turntable work by DJ Kool Herc at a Bronx block party in August 1973 that led to collective development of the breakbeat technique, storytelling through rap, and breakdancing that would join it to become core elements of hip hop culture. In the beginning, DJs used popular disco, funk, or R&B tracks and drum machines to mix what we now recognize as early hip hop sound  and that element of genre bending would remain an element of hip hop in the generations of artists that followed. Though birthed in the Bronx, hip hop would go on to develop roots and regional specificities in Black communities across the United States and eventually secure a unique place in the legacy of Black American music and culture that influences the world. Like the disco and funk genres hip hop was birthed out of, it grew a culture beyond the music to include art, fashion, and even politics. According to Billboard, hip hop is currently the Number 1 most-consumed type of music globally which, for better and worse, also means a mass consumption of the Black culture and art that surrounds the music.

It would be difficult to deliver proper credit to every artist who has helped to define, reinvent, and expand the reach of hip hop as a genre throughout the last 50 years, but I am thoroughly enjoying the ways folks are taking time to honor and pay tribute to those artists most influential to their experience or communities. In addition to formal industry tributes like the 50th Anniversary Performances at the Grammys this year and the upcoming Celebration of Hip Hop at Essence Fest, cities across the nation are planning anniversary events recognizing hip hop artists from their region as well as those universally recognized for their contribution to the genre, influence on younger acts, and place in the culture. In reviewing these line ups, I’ve noticed that the decision to focus on originators and legends, while an understandable approach to anniversary celebrations, has the impact of producing events that aren’t reflective of the ways in which the genre and culture around it have grown and diversified. There are more female artists, openly queer artists, and genre-bending artists in hip hop at this moment than ever before but you could attend several anniversary tributes in several cities and leave without much impression of their collective impact. 

The truth of the matter is the diversity in the most recent generations of hip hop artists has pushed those of us within hip hop culture to explore key questions around who gets to lay claim to the genre, how we distinguish the lines between hip hop and other genres, what the difference is between appreciation and appropriation, and what would it look like for a musical culture with a history of sexism and homophobia to become a space where queer artists and artists that are not cis men can thrive. I see Janelle Monáe not just as a member of this category of artists disrupting the hip hop status quo but also as a way paver for many of the artists that have come on the scene after them, including but not limited to the artists signed to Monáe’s Atlantic Records imprint, Wondaland Arts Society. 

Janelle Monáe has been in the music scene since the early 2000s and is not someone who can be restricted to genre or even medium. Monáe is a singer, rapper, producer, actress, and author. Their music fits comfortably in a range of genres, as reflected by award nominations spanning categories like Pop, R&B, Urban, and Alternative. Their newest album, “The Age of Pleasure,” leans heavily on reggae and calypso rhythms and sounds, but like all the other albums, has key unmistakeable elements of hip hop. Monáe’s love for the genre is evidenced through their smooth effortless raps over beats as well as their collaboration with and reference to other rappers and hip hop artists across projects. “Django Jane” and “I Got the Juice (feat Pharrell Williams)” off Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” album are hip hop tracks counted among Monáe’s discography essentials. “The Age of Pleasure” adds, “Float (feat. Sean Kuti & Egypt 80)”, “Champagne Shit”, and “Haute,” which I expect to become classics in their own right, to Monáe’s discography. In addition to playing with hip hop sounds on their own tracks, Monáe has done notable features for other hip hop artists throughout their career including Outkast, Big Boi, B.O.B, and Jeezy. I think it’s important not to overlook what it means to have Monáe among the number of queer genre-bending artists who are continually shaping hip hop culture. 

Even before Monáe came out to the public as pansexual and nonbinary, they showed a commitment to freedom and authenticity in their work. Cyndi Mayweather’s Metropolis and the Dirty Computer Universe were both spaces that explored what it means to know yourself as you are othered, restricted, and/or abused. The concepts explored through these projects and the Afrofuturistic lens through which Monáe engages with them created something deeply profound for Black queer femmes in particular. Their work was so impactful, and so expertly situated within Afrofuturistic musical tradition, that the ArchAndroid costume worn by Monáe for the album cover is included in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s current Afrofuturism Exhibit alongside artifacts from other iconic artists like Nona Hendryx of Labelle, Outkast, and Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton. 

DJ posing in a squat next to Janelle Monáe's Arch Android costume on display at NMAAHC
DJ posing in a squat next to Janelle Monáe’s Arch Android costume on display at NMAAHC

A student of Prince, Monáe has always found a way to leave an impression. In an industry where style and art are intricately linked, they came on the scene with a style that both pulled from the past and played with ideas of futurism. Donning suits, crowns, pompadours, and futuristic jewelry, they found freedom in a wardrobe others may have found restrictive and became a trendsetter for that aesthetic. In the recent promo for “The Age of Pleasure,” we see Monáe in braids, crop tops, and short shorts which those who have not followed the artist’s journey may take as a sharp contrast but for their fans is recognizable as a different iteration of their free self-expression. The freedom dream can look like badass androids with suits and the freedom dream can look like shedding the armor, selecting a low maintenance hairstyle, and feeling comfortable in your nakedness. Their style, like their music cannot be narrowly defined and comes from a place of personal interests, desire, and self-expression. It is funky, it is free, it is so fucking cool and those things together are all essential to what hip hop has always represented. It is this fluid and genuine self-expression coupled with Monae’s sheer talent and artistry that sets them up for unmeasured cultural impact in general and in the world of hip hop specifically. 

Hip Hop has been rightfully credited as a space for liberation and boundary pushing since its founding, but I think for too long we ignored the question of who was included in the liberation and which boundaries remained firmly in place. We’ve seen the creativity, joy, and audience that queer artists like Monáe bring into the hip hop space. Together, they’re shifting us from fighting the power to dismantling the conditions that allow it to restrict our freedoms in the first place. I’m not sure if those we credit with creating and defining hip hop in its origin ever imagined those of us that are boldly defiant of societal norms around both gender and sexuality as inheritors of their work, but I know for sure that Janelle Monáe’s work in this new era of reclamation and pleasure will help define hip hop culture for the next 50 years.