IT'S GOTTA BE FUNKY
This ain’t the same ’ol song and dance that your mama’s used to. Injecting soul, hip-hop and rock into their music DNA, Janelle Monáe and Robin Thicke are ambassadors of the new R&B. Over confetti and cocktails, the two discuss the perks of operating in a genre-less genre
STORY: Shanel Odum | PHOTOS: Kareem Black
It’s a party—a festive blizzard of colliding bubbles, balloons, noisemakers and winking confetti. A medley of Michael Jackson classics pumps through Manhattan’s luxe restaurant/lounge Beauty & Essex, and Robin Thicke is dancing giddily on a dimpled leather couch. He’s striking, decked out in glossy couture, puffing a menthol and sipping on something brown and neat. His energy is viral. He’s the soiree-starter, the disco ball of the dance floor. He knows he owns the room and revels in it—until a tiny, Oreo-clad enigma with a perfectly poofed pompadour floats onto the set. He shouts at her in mock appall.
“Your hair is higher than mine!”
Janelle Monáe returns his quip with a quiet chorus of giggles and joins him in the revelry of VIBE’s 20th Anniversary cover shoot. Their dynamic is as divergent as the exquisitely tailored black and white ensembles they’re rocking for the occasion. Together, they’re a contrary cocktail of Xanax and Red Bull—she’s reserved, tranquil, focused, (almost asexual); he’s pumped, effervescent, peacocked, hypersexual. The 36-year-old singer with Timberlake timbre is cutting up like it’s his own birthday, and in a way it is—he’s been in the game as long as we have.
In 2003, he played a scruffy-faced, hippy-haired, ballad-belting bike messenger riding a bouncy Beethoven beat onto the R&B landscape. Six albums later, he’s got a fistful of street cred and a remixed image, but his sound remains a throwback to the days of Afros and 8-tracks. His most recent and successful (Billboard’s No. 1) aural offering, Blurred Lines (Star Trak/Interscope) is perfectly polished pop—a ménage of electrocuted hip-hop rhythm, slippery synths and panty-raiding R&B. There’s the Timbaland-touched standout “Take It Easy on Me”; heaving anthem “Give It 2 U”; and “Ain’t No Hat 4 That,” the so-funky-it-stinks collab with actor pops Alan Thicke.
Fellow funk master Janelle’s palette is equally vibrant. Since we met her nine years ago, she’s gone from intergalactic ATLien-ette with a Big Boi cosign to a moonwalking, P-funk phenom with a Bad Boy contract. She’s got a boundless operatic wail that turns up the intensity on her homespun juke joint jam sessions. She dusts the stage with Baby Powder and puts a spit-shine on dusty classic funk/soul. Her upcoming sophomore album, The Electric Lady (Bad Boy/Atlantic/Wonderland), feels like her crossover moment, culminating with a royal collab with musical mentor Prince, who adores her.
Robin and Janelle may have wildly different vibes, but the two musicians have more in common than carefully cultivated coifs—they’re both classics. Two artists who share the same approach to music; retro rebels taxing the airstrip, poised for takeoff. VIBE eavesdrops as the two wax poetic on the state of R&B, funk and soul music throughout our 20-year legacy; the art of crossing over; and blurring genre lines.
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