An Afro-Futurist pop star? A political activist? An android from the year 2719? Ever since Janelle Monáe Robinson first travelled back in time and introduced us to her “Wondaland” in 2007, the self-proclaimed “High Funkstress” has cast a spell over the industry, challenging critics to define her unique brand of black girl magic.
On her duet with Erykah Badu back in 2013, the “Q.U.E.E.N.” dared listeners to categorize her art with the refrain “I defy every label,” and it’s precisely this refusal to conform that’s won her so many fans up until now. However, this inability to brand Monáe in one specific box may also be the reason why she hasn’t yet become a household name. Despite starring in two Academy Award-nominated films and earning six Grammy nominations for her music, mainstream audiences have struggled to reconcile Monáe’s cyborg alter ego with the woman behind the circuits – but that’s all set to change on April 27, 2018.
“Now I know I’ve got a heart, ’cause it’s breaking…”
Set for release on her own label later this year, Monáe’s fourth studio album, Dirty Computer, promises to elevate the Archandroid’s career to dazzling new heights, earning her the throne that she sits on so proudly in the video for “Django Jane.” Alongside this promo, Monáe has also gifted us with another video for the song “Make Me Feel”, which together will be released as part of a longer narrative film – or “emotion picture” – that will accompany the release of Dirty Computer.
Speaking to The Guardian, Monáe revealed that Dirty Computer “is an extremely vulnerable” album, one which she’s been planning to create even before The ArchAndroid was released in 2010. While the idea that her vision may span across space and time is nothing new for the synthetic popstar, what makes the upcoming record stand out from the rest of the pack is the “very deep, very personal” things that Monáe is finally willing to share on this new project.
Sure, this wouldn’t be the first time that an artist has claimed to bare all prior to the release of a new album, but with both “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel,” Monáe has already ventured into more personal spaces than ever before. Critics who have previously claimed that she lacks heart would do well to reconsider their stance by the time that Dirty Computer sparks a cybernetic revolution later this year.
“We come in peace, but we mean business.”
Monáe confessed to The Guardian that she’s “terrified” about opening up and revealing the circuitry of her soul, but it sure doesn’t sound like it on “Django Jane.” Here, the futuristic diva oversees the realm of “Wondaland” in her palace, rallying fandroids with “champagne in my chalice.” Both a fierce rap song and an inspirational protest anthem, “Django Jane” is also Monáe’s most intimate single to date, pushing back against political discourse that personally threatens her rights “as a woman, as a black woman,” and “as a sexually liberated woman.”
This isn’t the first time that the Electric Lady has spoken out against gender inequality. In 2017, Monáe suggested that Marie Claire readers should consider a sex strike to make people “start respecting the vagina.” She also made headlines again just recently at the 2018 Grammys for telling the audience that Time’s Up on sexism in the music industry too. Previous songs of hers such as “Yoga”, “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Ghetto Woman” also defy patriarchal oppression, but never before has Monáe invoked fans to start anything like “a motherfuckin’ pussy riot” with such conviction in her music.
Confronting mansplaining head on, “Django Jane” orders listeners to “hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue,” and it’s in bars like this where Monáe pushes herself forthright into the front of this new cultural shift that was kick-started by #METOO, one which she’ll continue to fight in the year 2719 and beyond.
Other lines such as “Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish,” address these universal concerns while also taunting those who specifically took aim at Monáe herself in the past. For a long time, she was rarely seen out of a tux, wearing this “uniform” in homage to her parent’s working class roots, but in recent years, Monáe has also embraced traditionally male fashion as a powerful feminist statement.
Just last week, the celebrated actress subverted a classic Hollywood ideal during a photo shoot for W Magazine, transforming the ‘Hitchcock Heroine’ trope into a ‘Hitchcock Hero,’ complete with the iconic gray suits that the director’s male leads typically wore. Again, Monáe also makes a similar statement in the video for “Django Jane,” embodying ideals of power in her gorgeous, jewel-toned suit. However, it’s hard not to wonder whether her clothes here also act as a defiant celebration of non-conformity on a sexual level too.
“I’m powerful with a little bit of tender”
Resisting homogeneity is something that lies at the core of both Monáe’s artistry and the Fritz Lang-inspired narrative that threads each of her albums together. The first release, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), introduced Monáe’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who is forced to go on the run after falling in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. This forbidden romance forms the backbone of every subsequent release, and Monáe herself has explicitly stated that androids represent “the new Other” in this narrative, which symbolizes the queer community and anyone else who feels oppressed by society.
The recurring theme of gender fluidity in Monáe’s discography has prompted many to question her sexuality, something which the artist herself has also toyed with more than once in her lyrics. From the moment when the Q.U.E.E.N. asks if she’s a freak because she loves “watching Mary” to the entire song “Sally Ride,” which is an ode to the deceased queer astronaut, Monáe is no stranger to hinting that she might be “An emotional, sexual bender.”
Directly lifted from her new song “Make Me Feel,” this line is just one way that the Electric Lady has recently alluded to the love she might hold for other ‘Electric Ladies.’ In the video for the single, Monáe accepts a lollipop from actor Tessa Thompson with some blatant erotic undertones while simultaneously flirting with a man. At one point, the singer even struts comically back and forth between them both, seemingly unable to choose between these two objects of desire. The difference here from before is that Monáe is now approaching the subject of her sexuality with more irreverence, still powerful, but now “with a little bit of tender,” and a whole lot of “bisexual lighting.”
Despite claiming that she lives “in the future”, Monáe told The Guardian that her focus now is “on being a complete, complex human being.” She has always walked a tightrope between her cyborg brain and human heart, but here she has finally found a balance between the two. Both “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” are political in different ways, and yet both represent Monáe’s vision more clearly than ever before. By addressing racial and sexual inequality in ways that directly relate to her own personal experience, Monáe’s art is directly rooted in the present, yet her android persona continues looking forward to a dystopian future that she wishes to prevent, striving to remain forever ahead of the curve.
Sure, Monáe’s music still defies categorization, but in a world where the fight for equality is more pressing than ever and things no longer need to fit into one specific box, the mainstream is finally ready to step out into Neon Valley Street and dance apocalyptic with everyone’s favorite Electric Lady. More than ever before, 2018 is the year that Monáe will finally make fandroids out of us all.
Get our take on Janelle Monáe’s new singles in our Best Tracks of the Week recap.
- Words: David Opie
- Cover Image: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images