Janelle Monáe is power personified.
The Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based singer-actress-activist has ascended to pop icon status while making several marks on the music landscape, including founding her own imprint, the Wondaland Arts Society. Since 2009, Monáe has been a force in music, raking in six GRAMMY nominations and enjoying critical acclaim, all without the pressure of putting sales or streaming numbers on the board.
From her speech at the 2017 Women’s March to major roles in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, to her “Time’s Up” speech at the 2018 GRAMMYs, the evolution displayed on Monáe's third studio album, Dirty Computer, makes perfect thematic sense. All of these years, Janelle Monáe has wanted to be seen and heard so more queer people of color can be seen and heard—a "rising tide lifts all boats" situation if there ever was one.
With that, Dirty Computer opens with yearning but soars into lust and satisfaction. Monáe does more than normalize sexual liberation—what a sterile word—she revels in it. Pause the album at any given moment and we’re met with images of a “Young, Black, wild, and free” woman who just officially came out as pansexual in a recent Rolling Stone interview. This is the pivot from her android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. This is the pivot to sexual freedom and humanity.
Dirty Computer shines because of its commitment to Janelle, and from that comes a secondary benefit of visibility. What’s an android to a woman with a mission? In her New York Times interview, she explained that this album rose out of fear. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion,” she said. “The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist—but I feel it even greater now. And I don’t want to stay angry, but write and feel triumphant.”
The ripple effect of this triumph is a concerted effort to move hip-hop and mass culture towards a more sexually secure space. “I knew I needed to make this album,” she continued, “I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe.” Releasing an album wherein Monáe escapes the pitfall of labels while giving queer kids and femmes bodies of work that celebrate them head to toe; that’s the stuff of revolution.
As tactful as she is with her messaging, the album is also finely crafted. “Screwed” empties into the rap reservoir that is “Django Jane,” an ongoing conversation about pussy power with a touch of Auto-Tune that admittedly grows on you. On “Screwed,” she sings of sterilizing men so she can fuck when she pleases. “We put water in your guns” is as cheeky as it is politically salient. Evoking conversations about male birth control in the same breath as admitting to the power dynamics of sex being a real thrill might be the definition of subtlety meeting social change. She is meticulous, sure, but nothing is stopping Janelle Monáe from having fun.
Speaking of craft, Monáe breaks down the album into three acts: perception, party, and pride. These are also the ideal steps of a coming out gone right. Both “Dirty Computer” and “Crazy, Classic, Life” catalog how the public receives Monáe and how she would like to be received by the public, moving into “Take a Byte” where she scrubs the moniker of shame off sexual empowerment.
On “Screwed,” Monáe has needs that must be met and demands to be made, and she will get her way (“Django Jane”). Amidst this synth-funk paradise, the party begins. The stretch from “Pynk” to “Stevie’s Dream” covers all sides of sexual freedom. Consider Monáe a master chef, serving an ingredient four ways in a single course. Were this a movie—Janelle Monáe is releasing an accompanying film—these tracks would soundtrack the romp that is someone’s first queer love affair.
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Of course, her longtime mentor Prince is present on this album. His influence is best heard on the closing track “Americans,” but Monáe cites him as an ever-present figure in her mind. “As we were writing songs, I was like, ‘What would Prince think?'” she explained. “And I could not call him. It's a difficult thing to lose your mentor in the middle of a journey they had been a part of.” Her breakaway from fear, too, is inspired by Prince. The bare and boisterous nature of Dirty Computer is as dependent upon Monáe’s security and openness as it is years of Prince’s adjacent tutelage.
Her anxieties are understood but hardly realized on the album. During the 50-minute runtime, there is a single blind spot: the thinning high notes on “Pynk” that dangerously toe the line of being a bit too campy, a bit too grating. Ironically, it’s the android-like pitching that throws off this album that’s meant to step away from persona. When the guitars pick up and Monáe’s singing swells on the track, the difference is heavy. If anything, then, the contrasts on “Pynk” prove that Dirty Computer is Monáe’s moment.
Her moment reaches peak catharsis on the final two tracks, “So Afraid” and “Americans.” These songs cover pride, but not without tension. Inspired by Monáe’s worries and the political climate, the weightier vocals and earthy guitar on “So Afraid” stand in for the battle to be loud and proud. The winding pitch harmonics and muddying of Monáe’s voice suddenly plunges the album into a state of true panic. It mimics her own shock, of course, and is perfect cold-sweats music, but only for a moment. Monáe screams her fear, and in the boom of her voice, we find our blueprint for resistance.
Finally, we have “Americans,” or, the route Janelle Monáe is taking to lead us all to heaven. Monáe satirizes and subverts bigotry, taking the zeal of patriotism and refashioning it to reflect a passion for a more inclusive, more loving America. In that same breath, she asserts—she does not ask, she is done asking—that she, and all of the communities she represents, will be loved.
Dirty Computer is a statement of purpose and permission. The album is proof that internality and focus will naturally evoke universally moving music. In all of her cover stories, Monáe ends by giving back to the listener, telling them that this is their album. She could have only made an album so altruistic in nature by first making the album about herself.
Janelle Monáe sets the scene for Dirty Computer by celebrating her “Crazy, Classic, Life,” and out from that celebration and self-love, she finally delivered her definitive, crazy, could-be classic, album.
Three Standout Tracks
“Take a Byte”
This cut privileges the depth and range of Monáe’s voice as she intones sultry and lip-pursing notes. “Help yourself,” she sings, almost unaffected by her own appeal. When Monáe walks the line between confidence and nonchalance, she finds herself at a creative peak.
“Make Me Feel”
Staircase vocals and bisexual lighting. Janelle Monáe is a pop icon with enough talent for ten. Each track on this album glimmers with freedom and the power of self-truth, but from the moment this single dropped, it’s been a landmark in the public’s reintroduction to Janelle Monáe.
“I Like That”
Here, Monáe declares herself a “walking contradiction,” but within her layers of personality and to-be-expected inconsistencies, we get a full scope of her humanity. Just when you think Monáe can’t sound brighter, the wonderfully head-rolling “Oh me, oh me, oh me, oh my”s add a few more pops of color and panache.