2010 has been a breakthrough year for Janelle Monae. The Atlanta singer has dropped her debut album, paid tribute to Prince at the BET Awards and sung her lead single, “Tightrope,” for the sporting world’s biggest stars at the ESPYs – and she’s just getting started.
“I feel like it’s a blessing, I don’t take it for granted,” she told AccessHollywood.com over the phone this week. “I’m grateful for everyone for supporting us at such an early stage in my career.”
Anyone who’s seen Janelle take the stage or dance in her video for “Tightrope” (featuring Big Boi) has seen her singular wardrobe – a strictly black-tie ensemble that she says is meant to pay homage to her working-class parents.
“It started off as a uniform,” Janelle said. “My mother was a janitor and my father… works at the post office. That’s really what it was to pay homage to, the workingman and woman. I used to work at Office Depot.”
Janelle’s come a long way since then. Her themed debut full-length, “The ArchAndroid,” tells the sci-fi narrative of the titular protagonist, Cindy Mayweather. Her androgynous outfit helps share the story.
“I wanted to pick something that was very classic, that you could go anywhere in,” she said. “[It works] if you have a date in the future or the past. It’s to redefine the woman and how she can dress.”
While her clothing is consistent, her album leaps from genre to genre, like an Olympic runner jumping hurdles, from jazz to psychedelic rock to hard-hitting R&B.
“The only challenge was me being fearless,” she said. “If you listen to any iPod, it’s not on one genre. My iPod goes from Jimi Hendrix to Rosemary Clooney. I love the element of surprise, I love hearing psychedelia next to classical or a Stevie Wonder song.”
One unexpected guest on the album is indie rock frontman Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal. Janelle will return the favor on Of Montreal’s upcoming “False Priest,” and the unlikely pair will head out on tour together this fall in a dual performance, which she called “transformative,” although she wouldn’t spoil it with details.
The two clearly hit it off – so what was their first meeting like?
“My first meeting with Kevin was like meeting a unicorn whose spirit was that of the Dalai Lama,” she said, pausing to consider. “With a dash of surrealism.”
Their collaboration is the latest link between the worlds of underground rock and hip-hop/R&B, with Big Boi (“The ArchAndroid’s” executive producer and half of Atlanta-based duo OutKast) performing in a lineup full of avant-garde rockers at the indie-centric Pitchfork Music Festival this past weekend in Chicago and Jay-Z routinely name-dropping under-the-radar groups such as Grizzly Bear and Passion Pit. For her part, Janelle hopes the fun’s just starting.
“I hope so. One of my goals is to do away with those categories and those lines which divide us,” she said. “One of my primary goals is to create music that brings us together. We’re all just so much more than just what society has allowed us to get away with.”
Janelle credits Big Boi with helping herself and her longtime creative collaborators, the Wondaland Arts Society – a multi-talented group akin to Lady Gaga’s Haus of Gaga – establish themselves in the music industry.
“He was the first artist to really endorse what we were doing. I met him at a time I was fired from my job at Office Depot – I wrote a song about it called “Let It Go,” and he put it out,” she explained. “[OutKast member] Andre  came and listened to the ‘ArchAndroid’ before it came out and he was really inspired by it as well.”
Big Boi has struck out on his own with this year’s “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty,” but Janelle said OutKast’s time isn’t over yet.
“They’re going to work on another OutKast album together,” she assured.
Janelle’s own work is still just beginning — the busy vocalist’s tour hits the road in September and she’s already back in the studio. Whispers of Grammy nominations have already begun, but for all her new-found success, the word “relax” doesn’t seem to be in the singer’s vocabulary.
“We’re shooting a video for every song,” she said. “We’re already working on more music.”