Janelle Monae

“It’s a big universe,” says singer Janelle Monáe. “To stay in one tiny place is doing a disservice to yourself.” The 24-year-old is operating way outside the hackneyed American Idol set that a lot of music seems currently slumped in to be sure: Her four-part album, Metropolis, is a concept record about a female android on the run in a futuristic police state. (Part one, The Chase, arrived last August, with parts two and three to be released this year.) Monáe’s songs, inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the literary science fiction of Octavia E. Butler and Isaac Asimov, caught the attention of Diddy and OutKast’s Big Boi, both of whom signed on to executive produce the records. Monáe once made an escape of her own, breaking from a drug-addled family in Kansas City, Kansas, first to study musical theater in New York, and then to thrive in Atlanta’s funk scene. “Not having a lot of resources at my disposal, I needed to use my imagination,” she says. “I needed to show my cousins that there is hope.” Metropolis is an exhilarating trip through party jams and semi-operatic arias. Her music, in fact, has garnered comparisons to OutKast. Diddy said she’s the most important artist he’s ever signed to his Bad Boy Records label. Monáe, who also co-owns the record label The Wondaland Arts Society, attributes her eclectic sound to a fundamental vision quest. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people think African-American female artists are monolithically R&B this-or-that,” she says. “I don’t have to do anything by default.”

Above: Janelle Monáe in New York, November 2008. Jacket: Alexander Wang. Shirt and pocket square: Ralph Lauren. Bow tie: Early Halloween. Earrings: Monáe’s own. Styling: Alastair McKimm/Streeters. Hair: Esther Langham/Art + Commerce. Makeup: Frank B./The Wall Group. Production: Gina Liberto/MAP. Special thanks: Milk Studios.

Learn more about the four-part album at Janelle Monáe’s Web site.