That contrast innocence amid gangsta grit mirrors Janelle Monae's presence on a compilation album that recently arose from her new Atlanta home. Got Purp? Volume 2, produced by Big Boi, hit the streets in November 2005. A listener gets blissfully buried in the booming bass and the cymbals-tripping 16ths of songs such as "Shit Ya Drawers" and the club hit "Kryptonite." But Monae's track, "Lettin' Go," stands out within the crunk like a pure pop spotlight.
In that upbeat song, a sweet voice sings: I got a call today from my job up the block/It was my boss to say, "You know, we like you a lot/But we don't need you, J" the woman has been fired because she daydreams too much. But it's OK, she says, I'm-a party anyway, leaving stress and worries behind. The owner of the sweet voice, Monae, is a 19-year-old from Kansas City, Kansas.
Big Boi, one-half of the hypercreative hip-hop duo Outkast, caught the KCK native performing at an open mic at Justin's, a club owned by Sean "Diddy" Combs in Outkast's hometown, Atlanta. Monae sang Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly," then stepped offstage. She had no idea that Big Boi had been in the front row until he grabbed her elbow and told her that he wanted to sign her to his new label, Purple Ribbon Records.
It's a fitting story for the girl who played Cinderella in F.L. Schlagle High School musicals and grew up near 21st Street and Quindaro.
"I came from an area that I guess some would say a lot of disadvantaged children grew up in," Monae tells the Pitch by phone from Atlanta. "A lot of my family and people who came up who are older got strung out just being perfectly honest got strung out on drugs. There were times things were stolen from us. There was a lot that we would go through, that I would go through. And I would go to school, and nobody would ever think that I grew up in that area and all those things were going on in my neighborhood."
Monae says she distracted herself with art. She performed in school plays, and she and her best friend, Kinshasa Smith, hit the town as a duo, winning talent shows and playing open mics at the Blue Room and the Gem Theater at 18th Street and Vine.
Like plenty of other high school theater ingénues, Monae envisioned herself on Broadway, so she auditioned and was accepted to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. She won a scholarship, left Kansas and moved to New York to study jazz, tap and ballet and to be trained by vocal coaches. But after all that, she discovered something disappointing.
"I would go and watch the Broadway shows, and I'm African-American, and it's sad, but you get typecast," Monae says. "So you go to an audition, and they go, 'Oh, it's an African-American girl.' You have The Lion King. You have The Wiz, if it came back out. Aida. Those roles are cool, but so many people have done them. So what's new?"
Monae tried to answer that question by moving to Atlanta, which has lately become, for hip-hop and R&B, what Detroit was in Motown's glory days: a hotbed of artists and a stylish incubator for new talent. She wrote her own music and tested it at the Atlanta University Center, which is the confluence of Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College and Morehouse College. "I went around, and I did a dorm-room lounge tour," she says. "I literally went around to all the lounges of all the dorm rooms and performed.... I knew that I wanted to develop my own fanbase and see how well people in my age group perceived me."
And thus, on Facebook.com (a popular network of Web pages for college students), a page called "Janelle Monae, I'll Drink Your Bathwater" was born. Monae pressed her own CDs, threw her own album-release party and sold all 200 copies in one night. She made 200 more and sold out again two nights later. "So in, like, three days, I sold 400 CDs," she says. "It was crazy. That's when I knew, clearly, my voice mattered, and I really should take this seriously. After that, that's when I met Big Boi."
On Got Purp? Big Boi serves up a Janelle Monae sandwich, sticking her between tracks by heavyweights Bubba Sparxx, Goodie Mob and Killer Mike. But Monae, despite the Atlanta influences, isn't losing her Kansas City identity anytime soon. For instance, she's not interested in getting a gold grill.
"Oh, no, girl, No! Please! I like keeping my straight white teeth!" Monae insists. "I'm not on trends. That's too trendy right now anyway, no."
Even though she has never tried the famed, intoxicating "purple drink" in the ATL, "kryptonite" is something completely different.
"A lot of people think it's this drink. But when Big explained it to me, he put it like, it's a certain level of confidence. It's something that you're on that nobody can drag you down off, when you know what you're doing is worth talking about. So, 'I be on that kryptonite,'" she says, quoting the song's chorus, "from what I'm told, it's a figure of speech."
There's still a bit of culture shock. At first, nobody believed that there were any black girls in Kansas. And Monae had to get used to the men in Atlanta. "They're a lot more aggressive than Kansas guys," she explains. "If they like you, they'll say it. 'Hey, shorty,' 'Yo, shawty,' what is it? Shaw-tay!" Someone in the background yells it with her. "See, that's someone from Atlanta doing that."
Monae recently had to follow her favorite Outkast song, "Bombs Over Baghdad," when Big Boi performed it with the rest of his Purple Ribbon all-stars at a show at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "I was so nervous because that song has so much energy, and he had his dancers [read: scantily clad, big-booty shakers]. But the crowd perceived me really well. The message behind that song is incredible. It makes you want to start changing things."
Monae has some things she'd like to change, too. Her appearance on Big Boi and Andre 3000's soundtrack for the movie Idlewild, due this August, should spark a buzz that will translate into expectation for her first album, Metropolis (named for the 1927 Fritz Lang film), which she hopes to release in 2007. After that, she's going to show 21st Street and Quindaro a thing or two. Eventually, she'd like to build that area's first performing-arts school.
"People think I'm down here and everything's all gravy, but there's so many people back home that are struggling and just stuck," Monae says. "In my mind, I have so much to say and so many other people to help. I've never forgotten where I come from. If anybody asks, I always try to let 'em know. It's crazy, but I really want to be the one to show everyone back home that it can be done. And not by selling drugs but by being passionate about the right thing and the right things will come your way."
And when you do, Janelle, we'll pretty much drink your bathwater.