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Visual Albums: Janelle Monáe. Jonna Lee. Machine Gun Kelly. Nadine Lustre. Halsey

The past few years saw a rise both in the sheer number of musicals and musicians experimenting with the visual album format, blurring the lines between long-form music video and movie. When Olivia Rodrigo, 2021’s breakthrough pop artist, released a visual album AND a ‘prom experience’ (SOUR Prom, since removed from Youtube, but almost entirely available as a playlist), it really showed that the format had reached peak popularity levels.

If you search for “visual album”, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the lack of a Wikipedia page on the topic, probably meaning that the jury is still out on the capabilities, limits and overall difference between it and a music video, concept album or musical, or even a livestream with added production value. Audiosocket has an entry about them, however, and relying on the power of example (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” being the obvious one), Halsey’s “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” was definitely one of our favorite recent visual albums.

We’ll refer you to four others you can actually watch for free before we finally get to discuss Halsey’s latest visual. album. In no particular order, they are:

Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture]

Arguably the most famous modern visual album not made by Beyonce or Kanye West, “Dirty Computer” sees Janelle Monáe furthering her themes from “ArchAndroid” and “The Electric Lady”. This great article discusses it in the context of afrofuturism, a label which has been frequently used in association with Black artists ranging from Sun Ra to Flying Lotus and Throwing Shade, which gained a lot of traction following King Britt’s 2014 MoMA exhibition, “Moondance“.

Monáe is an artist which impressed us ever since her “Cold War” and “Many Moons” days – her exquisite voice, infectious energy, complex songwriting and themes making her deftly resist any sort of labeling. Because this certainly won’t be the first time we mention posthumanism either, here is a 2014 article discussing it in relation to Monáe’s famous female cyborg.

It’s a happy coincidence that we watched “Dirty Computer” after the second season of the Amazon Prime series “Homecoming”: they each share the theme of the importance of memories, and Monáe plays the protagonist in both of them. The difference is that the oppressive structures in ‘Dirty Computer’, as opposed to those in Homecoming, pick and delete one important memory at a time, thus allowing the viewer a peek into different music video ‘worlds’. This is definitely the most polished material we’ve heard from Monáe, the concept album overflowing with originality and even featuring a lot of rapping – with clever word associations and lyrics, rapid-fire delivery and impeccable timing, Monae’s “Dirty Computer” really is the whole package. If that wasn’t enough, the videos themselves are all visual wonders, to the point where picking a favorite is impossible.

The Youtube version feels a bit incomplete as a film, but it is definitely an “emotion picture” which conjures up strong feelings, just like her 2013 “PrimeTime” collaboration with Miguel. It can’t decide whether to offer a downer ending or an upbeat one for what amounts to a big send-up to conservative policies, police brutality, the surveillance state and especially the Trump era. There is, however, a Director’s cut which can be bought separately and which provides a more cinematic experience.

This material reminded everyone that Monáe is a wildly complex artist – not just a rapper, not just an R&B singer, but a visionary. Also, watch out for Grimes on ‘Pynk’, after Monáe featured on her ”Venus Fly”.

ionnalee – Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten

ionnalee, formerly known as iamamiwhoami, returned in 2018 with another incredible album and accompanying film. EATBF seems to deal in the same themes as Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” – the battle between old and new, between tradition and civilization, between man’s willpower and primal forces. It also is an album defined by its duality – half of the tracks seem to have modern pop elements and very upfront lyrics (there is mention of think-tanks, blood banks, and what might be Jonna’s first-ever use of the word ‘bitches’), while the other half has the more abstract lyrics of her iamamiwhoami project. This is probably intentional, as Jonna seems to have achieved synthesis with this album, while not entirely shedding her previous persona (she subsequently returned with new iamamiwhoami material and even remixed ‘Gone’ under her initial moniker). On ‘Gone’, the absolute highlight of the album, she recites: ‘The nature’s strength, the wonder who I am (Gone)/ A weakening force, all echoes from my past/ Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone’.

On EATBF, the New and the Old seem to be color-coded: Old is white (innocence, belief, trust in a higher power), New is black (nothingness, the rejection of all values, starting over from scratch with nothing but one’s will as a compass). Television and social institutions are presented as tools of manipulation, while the milk, a prominent visual motif, represents purity and trust, the normal flow of nature, individual growth supported by an entire community. In a wonderfully choreographed moment, Jonna joins a band of black-clad marauders and seems to fight a white-clad cult. This battle, as she says on ‘The Unending Party’, will carry on forever.

This album was not as well-received as her previous ones, but one thing is definitely clear: this is an artist who knows who she is, and her brand of synth-pop is infectious AND cerebral. If you thought she would never make a track as good as ‘Fountain’, there are several of them here. ionnalee is a musical hurricane – let yourself be carried away, and check out her previous works, too – kin, bounty and Blue, all available here– they are simply amazing works of art(-pop) and very unique in our content-driven age.

Machine Gun Kelly – Downfalls High

Machine Gun Kelly is a much more complex artist than his beefs with Eminem would have you believe. Arguably managing to make pop-punk relevant again all on his own, on “Downfalls High” Colson Baker switches genres, draws inspiration from Grease and delivers a teen-friendly near-masterpiece.

Essentially a doomed love story with a twist, featuring appearances from Baker himself (his personality ranging from aloof to confrontational, while never leaving any room for doubt that he has the presence, intelligence and experience required to carry such a project), “Downfalls” begins with the promise of a tragedy, the first track being both an introduction and an (alternate) ending. If you’ve listened to any punk and emo recently, MGK singing “I’m selling tickets to my downfall” will tickle your senses – if not, you might be taken aback for a while. However, the sound is finely tuned, and there are even light trap elements to look out for.

Other than the fact that MGK can write a mean pop hook, the only thing you can accuse him, story-wise, is not giving Scarlett (Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney) a real personality and then using the twist to give the male character, Fenix, one instead. But, in true teenage-punk style, this album switches tones at the speed of a nitrous oxide engine-powered car:  these characters are teenagers, and thus behave as such (the most representative bit of dialogue is something akin to ‘Life sucks, bro!’ – ‘I know, bro. Let’s get a burger!‘ ), and “wasting one’s youth” is just as important as the trauma and the definitive statements starting with “I f***ing hate…” in this universe.

Fenix IS traumatized as a result of the twist, but it lasts for the duration of one song (the album’s strongest moment, where Baker, assuming the role of passenger in the boy’s narrative, stands by an ambulance and recalls what could be his own personal tragedies in a really cathartic scene). Once that’s over, he shrugs it off, compartmentalizes and starts a band. This is the point in the album where it does seem to resemble something like an updated ‘Grease’ for the Instagram generation – as it was advertised – but that never really comes to fruition either. (For that to have worked, it should have had multiple voices, but MGK is only ever interested in Fenix. His trauma comes back later in another strong moment in the album, where he’s seen sleeping in the graveyard surrounded by pink crosses.)

Baker ends the whole thing with the third song about overcoming tragedy, screaming the words ‘I’ll miss you!’ over and over again, but the album is as much about that as it is about the experience of being famous, getting high and wasting one’s young years. Featuring guest spots from Halsey and Trippie Red, “Downfalls High” might essentially be a frustrating experience due to its ability to forget itself and its seemingly-short attention span…but if you think about it, humans need to be able to forget their own tragedies and move on, so the album’s irreverent structure might a bigger plus initially estimated. We can personally vouch for the material being much more appealing after the initial listen is over, once you are aware of the twist and you can enjoy every song for what it is, with Baker’s songwriting making almost each track timeless.

Nadine Lustre – Wildest Dreams

There are currently hundreds of visual albums on Youtube alone, and you can discover new artists from all around the world through them. Nadine Lustre is one of the top acts hailing from the Philippines, and her music can be categorized as electronic R&B, falling right between pre-2015 Tinashe and the sound of Japanese electronic producers such as immi. Her ‘Wildest Dreams’ visual album is not as strong a ‘film’ as the others on this list – it lacks a cohesive vision and tight direction, but it does contains some very trippy animation sequences that are simply delightful.

A story about womanhood and (re)discovering one’s roots in an increasingly modern world, WD astonishes with its many creative outfits and “looks” (you can read a great article summing up all 50 of them here). Blending traditional and modern motifs, “Dreams” continues doing the good work that Netflix did in bringing the esoteric culture of the Philippines closer to mainstream appeal.

Lustre really lets her love of fashion drive the feel of the album, while the music itself is very varied, relying on a “personal touch” which really sets some tracks apart. The last four songs are the point at which the album really finds its groove, with ‘Grey Skies’ being our absolute favorite – it actually doesn’t resemble anything that came before it, is very upbeat (‘Just learn to dance in the rain‘), the dance outfits and choreography being glorious and the bassline simply iconic. The penultimate track also recalls cult jazz-hop producer, Nujabes (R.I.P.), – it’s understandable if you’ll want to listen to his Luv (Sic) or to watch some Tinashe performances after “Wildest Dreams” is over. A great way to start your day, and a very strong album which doubles as the best entry point to Lustre’s career.

Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Halsey made waves in 2021 when, in addition to announcing that her latest album would be a collaboration with legendary duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, she promoted said album as a film experience. IICHLIWP, like most visual albums from this list, requires multiple viewings, uses the sort of mood whiplash which – by now – almost always comes with the format, is filled with details which make it into a “show, don’t tell” experience and manages to be a pretty unique horror movie on top of everything else.

The story isn’t really as important as the visuals, the clever lyrics and wordplays, the punch-to-the-gut, cumulative effect of the songs themselves: Halsey plays a queen who, after suffering at the hands of a hateful husband, is faced with both a pregnancy and a looming death sentence after said husband bites the dust. The execution is to be carried out by the court after the baby’s birth.

With both depression, motherhood and reckless abandon as major themes, Halsey provides some truly haunting moments (“This woman will not go quietly”, indeed), such as when she’s repeating ‘All of this is temporary’, or ‘I sleep with one eye open and one eye closed’. The film just flows – while there are obvious anachronisms in there, one might miss some details, like the relationship with the handmaiden who runs off with someone else and leaves the queen heartbroken. Beyond the obvious scary aspects, “Power” also delivers a life-affirming message: being told that she will be executed at the end of her pregnancy no matter what, the queen sings, dances, drinks, parties and enjoys her time left above all else. There is, of course, an escape attempt and a lot more deeper meaning in the imagery (the Madonna, Lilith, the witch in the cottage).

It’s also the kind of horror that Neil Marshall’s “Reckoning” was in 2021, albeit one with a more lasting effect. The only thing which might disappoint is the lack of all-out choreographies, and the ending might also a trigger a sudden ‘wait…is that it?’ reaction ( staying through the end credits is mandatory). You’ll also find yourself thinking about said ending, however – the baby, the mother’s conflicted feelings, what the story’s real message is and what it says about our modern society – for days on end.

Critics compared the album to the works of Grimes or P!nk, and fans of Reznor and Ross will definitely get what they came for with this one, as Halsey’s vocals are more than a match for their production quality. Highlights are “Bells In Santa Fe” (one of the best recent intros in memory), “Girl Is A Gun” (great loops and lyrics) and “Easier Than Lying” (essentially a punk-rock track), but be sure to listen to the disc itself in order to hear some songs which manage to shine on their own (like “You Asked For This”).

Halsey’s “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” is available on VOD platforms. We’ll return with other five interesting visual albums in the following weeks.

Featured image is “Battlecry” by Pamela Phatsimo.

Reading material: 6 Afrofuturism Artists to Watch out for that explore Modern African diaspora, by Leila Leiman.

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