Janelle Monáe has always been an artist I’ve have a deep respect for, but enjoyed from afar. To be honest, it was mostly for lack of trying, but what I knew for sure is that I enjoyed the singer’s aesthetic and attitude. I had just heard of her album Dirty Computer a couple weeks before it released when I stumbled upon the video for the single “Django Jane”. My reaction was something like ‘yooooo’, and my interest was assuredly piqued (I’ll get into why later). The album is now upon us and, after several listens, I can say that Dirty Computer will be a musical milestone of 2018.
There’s an unavoidable importance that must be touched on first. Around a day before the release of Dirty Computer, Monáe declared herself a ‘free-ass motherfucker’, being a queer black woman and revealing her pansexuality to Rolling Stone in a moving cover story. As the details unfolded, and is quickly reaffirmed with the music on this album, this is her most personal album yet. Although her slick, sci-fi thematic aesthetic is still intact, Monáe is no longer an android through which her words are delivered. We are learning about the human Janelle Monáe Robinson, in the flesh. In a way, to love Dirty Computer, and I do, is to love Monáe as a person because this is a soulful portrait of herself.
First and foremost, Dirty Computer is a celebration of identity. It revels in the beauty of unapologetically being yourself in the face of great adversity and pessimism. When blackness and queerness are still othered, chastised, and punished in much of American society, simply existing is a radical act. Monáe makes a statement on “Crazy, Classic, Life” by saying, ‘We don’t need another ruler/All of my friends are kings/I am not America’s nightmare/I am the American dream‘. That verse alone is deserving of multiple paragraphs of analysis – suffice it to say that it’s a declaration of what she and her music ultimately represent, a parallel with the American dream: freedom. The Grimes assisted track “PYNK” puts femininity above all, with the video for it heavy-handed yet effective with imagery. One of the album’s fiercest moments comes in the form of “Django Jane”, a song completely rapped by Monáe. Her voice has a commanding lead spitting several quotables, the beat taking the form of a modern hip-hop song with tittering hi-hats and deep bass kicks.
Although Monáe really hits her stride with midtempo amalgamations of pop, soul, funk, and rock, she also slays over a slower tempo and softer tone. “Don’t Judge Me” is a heartfelt and stunning R&B ballad that shows the singer’s vulnerability. With groovy, sexy bass and pretty orchestral inserts, it jams enough to become a staple for date night playlists, but is emotional enough to be infinitely relatable to young lovers of any kind. It almost makes me wish there were more songs like this on Dirty Computer because this one was done so well. Another welcomed deviation from the established formula is “I Got The Juice”, which features Pharrell Williams on a bouncy, African-inspired pop rap beat. Monáe is as confident as ever, regal power radiating from her voice through the speakers.
Dirty Computer frequently reminds me of Prince, at times crafting music dripping with sexuality and swagger unseen since his prime. On the fiery “Screwed”, Monáe just straight up samples a song of his (“Kiss”). Instrumental passages also allude to Prince‘s 80s pop rock sound perfected on Purple Rain, like the synth punches and clean, playful guitar of “Make Me Feel”. Similarly to The Purple One, Monáe presents sex and love in a form absent of toxic masculinity or harmful, unsavory behaviors often regarded and written off as traditional social romantic mores.
Although this album is perfectly capable of standing on its own as art, Monáe didn’t stop there. There is a 48-minute ’emotion picture’ that accompanies the album and fleshes out the concept of Dirty Computer. The short film of the same name delves into android Jane 57821 (played by Monáe) and her life’s memories. Jane is referred to as a ‘dirty computer’ which, as the story unfolds, really just means that she was unabashedly herself. She loved who she wanted, she lived how she wanted, she was fierce and didn’t really care what anyone thought. She was happy. The sterile, unnamed faction of people that seek to ‘clean’ Jane can obviously symbolize hundreds of real-world, often puritanical groups, many of which claim the moral high ground and seek to see people who deviate fall in line to say the absolute least. The visuals are vibrant with dense Afro-futuristic themes (a staple for Monáe), unrivaled choreography, and a diverse cast of performers exploring presentations of identity and being, living their best lives in a world that would rather them become silent and complicit to their own oppression. Additionally, some songs are tweaked in this film like “PYNK”, which gets a whole additional rapped verse at the end of the track. This goes far beyond a stitching together of the existing music videos for Dirty Computer, though even looking at it from that angle still makes it impressive.
Dirty Computer is a conversation starter at the least, and a monolith of validity at its best. I relish at the fact that Monáe has put herself out there in such a way that will likely make others like her realize it’s okay to be yourself. It’s admirable to see someone so confidently dance to their own beat, and reach their hand out in comfort to others who feel different and seek acceptance. In a time where #BlackGirlMagic is prominently – and rightfully – celebrated, Dirty Computer is culturally important and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become an unrivaled classic in her catalog in the near future, and Monáe achieve icon status because of it. I am in awe.
Notable Tracks: “Take a Byte”; “Django Jane”; “Make Me Feel”; “Don’t Judge Me”
FFO: Beyoncé, Solange, Jill Scott, Frank Ocean
If you enjoyed reading about this album, please take some time to seek out writing from people in the black and queer community like this piece hosted on USA Today.