Janelle Monáe Is Liberated on ‘Dirty Computer,’ a Timely, Infectious, and Empowering Album
Janelle Monáe sings, raps, produces, and breaks boundaries. She comes from Kansas City, Missouri, and usually dresses in black and white, as a nod to her mother’s janitor uniform, presenting her art as an uplifting affirmation of the unrecognized working class. From her 2007 debut EP, “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase,)” to 2010’s “The ArchAndroid,” and 2013’s “The Electric Lady,” she has consistently assumed a futuristic, androgynous aesthetic, which achieves new realization on her latest album, “Dirty Computer,” and its visual companion, “Emotional Picture.” Monáe has just come out as pansexual, and her timely release delivers the news in the most elaborate manner.
“Dirty Computer” is a relatable name — surely, you’ve been in the situation in which you open the door, and your roomate springs up in sheer terror, and does his/her/zis/zer best to obscure the view of the computer monitor. Actually, however, Monáe’s title choice goes well deeper than this. It alludes to the fact that we all arise from dirt, and ultimately return to dirt — a subtle reminder that you probably ought to have a bit more humility, as you are really nothing more than an ephemeral physical form. As for the “computer” part, we are essentially computers, receiving, processing, and transmitting information from external stimuli. In fact, today, we’re basically androids, as our cell phones are so inextricably linked to ourselves that they are basically an extension of our consciousness. And for the “dirty part,” Monáe has explained, “I think it’s a conversation I want to have with us as a society, as human beings, about what it means to tell somebody that their existence, either they’re queer, minorities, women, poor, makes you have bugs and viruses. […] it’s about embracing those things even if it makes others uncomfortable.” Basically, anything that strikes the average person as unfamiliar, hence abnormal and disconcerting, is viewed as a threat, one that interferes with the regular protocol of the standard computer. Monae’s chosen title of “Dirty Computer,” celebrates these “viruses,” and calls upon people to celebrate their differences, regardless of how comfortably they sit with the status quo.
Much of Monáe’s lyrics express her former struggles to fit in, for example, in “Classic Crazy Life: “But no matter where it was, I always stood out / Black Waldo dancing with the thick brows.” In “Django Jane,” she recalls, “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish / Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it / Jane Bond, never Jane Doe.” Monáe has always gone against the grain, following her heart, and receiving much criticism from the narrow minded along the way. In “I Like That,” she sings, “Uh, I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off / And you rated me a 6.” Finally, after all this judgment, she is standing up, declaring, in the encapsulating, “Don’t Judge Me,” “Even though you tell me that you love me / I’m afraid that you just love my disguise.” Along with calling people out, she finally gets vocal about her desires, as in another line from “Classic Crazy Life”: “I just wanna find the guy / And I hope she loves me too.” She acknowledges the danger she courts with this openness, in “Take A Byte,” saying, “Your code is programmed not to love me.” Still, she stands firm and proud, singing, “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream.” Now that the cat is out of the bag, Monae let’s loose completely. With a newfound sense of liberation, she declares, in “Django Jane,” “And we gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot / Or we son’ have to put ‘em on a pussy diet” — very “Lysistrata.” She gets explicit in “Pynk,” singing, “Pynk, like the inside of your… baby.”
The pansexual identification fits Monáe rather well, in a way, as her music runs the full spectrum. The first track, “Dirty Computer,” featuring Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, is the best possible intro, capturing the emotive weight of Wilson’s signature harmonies, and grounding it, stark and clean, in the here and now, with a hard-hitting beat, and Monáe bleating out an overture for the album. The guest appearances on the album all make for valuable additions. “Pynk,” featuring Canadian avant pop electronic producer and singer Grimes, does exactly what a guest appearance should do: infuse a little bit of the guest artist’s signature sound into the signature palette of the host artist. The peculiar, “I Got That Juice” features none other than the illustrious Pharrell Williams, who drops a verse, and puts his trademark stamp on the production.
Prince served as a mentor, of sorts, for Monáe, and seems to have left such an impression that the whole album exudes his presence, subtly, but still conspicuously. It’s in the eclectic ambition of the music, in the free shuttling between styles in a way that is unabashedly flashy and indulgent, wildly eccentric, yet infectious and accessible enough to register as nothing more than immediate, pure pop. Just listen to “Make Me Feel,” and you’ll get the idea. Monae often taps into the strain of lighthearted, effervescent, playful, girly pop typified by artists like, say, Gwen Stefani. The difference is that Monáe seems to always do it with an underlying seriousness — although the frivolous, frolicsome sound often slyly cloaks the gravity underneath. Then, there are moments when Monáe lets herself run rampant, and let’s you know what the deal is, unfiltered and uncut. “Django Jane” features her rapping straight through, calling everyone out. She does it much better than countless artists who focus exclusively on rapping — but what more would you expect? Much like Prince, Monáe is on a different level. She makes her point, and dives right back into bubblegum, making it all seem seamless and effortless.
Overall, “Dirty Computer” is a meticulously crafted album showcasing a rare combination of pop virtuosity and bold, unabashed directness. It’s a timely statement of empowerment and inclusion from a consistently exciting artist, and it should make for an engaging and entertaining listen for long-term fans and newcomers alike.
“Dirty Computer” is available April 27 on Apple Music.